Sometimes BoFN subjects surprise because what is assumed to be an assumed name turns out to be real. Such is the case with Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Monk is the family name. Thelonious is the given name. (It was initially misspelled either “Thelious” or “Thelius” depending on how one deciphered the scrawl on Monk’s birth certificate.) And Sphere comes from Thelonious’s maternal grandfather Sphere Batts.
Monk’s name is not just real, but uncannily appropriate. So much so that I just ransacked King Dave’s “Funny Name Theory” to find the right theorem. There’s nothing there, so I guess I have to work out the proofs myself.
If you heard Monk’s name for the first time and did word association you might come up with a list like this: scholastic, intellectual, geometric, mathematical, planetary, cosmic, monastic, spiritual, contemplative, silent, austere, ascetic, basic, spare, minimalist . . .
That is Monk all over. Thus, we can formulate a new theorem:
The Thelonious Monk Self-Description Prescription Prediction:
The funny birth name of a creative innovator will predict the creative innovation of the creative innovator.
Monk is to jazz what Van Gough is to painting, Kafka or Flannery O’Connor are to fiction, William Blake is to poetry. All of them wielded what seemed like rough, spare strokes to realize a vision totally outside the box, pared down to bare essentials yet rising to inter-planetary heights. And while none of them got runaway popular success in their lifetimes, we can’t imagine imagine jazz, painting, fiction, or British poetry (respectively) without them.
What would jazz be without “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” or “Well, You Needn’t”?
Though a quasi-informed jazz buff, I wrongly associated Monk with the Beatnik era and cool jazz. I learned in Candace Allen’s excellent retrospective that Monk was a foundational force in the bebop era of the 1940s, making his music even more remarkable. As the sub-header for Allen’s piece puts it, “He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched.”
To be honest, I never completely adjusted to Monk’s playing, and appreciate Monk’s genius most when his standards are played by other greats, especially Miles. But according to Allen, Miles himself had similar views.
Even a collaborator such as Miles Davis asked why Monk persisted with the weird chord changes that just sounded wrong. But to Monk, his chords weren’t weird, they were the logical result of countless hours of musical exploration.
True to his monastic name, finally there is silence. Allen again:
For Monk, silence was at once muse and the centre of his gravity . . . . It’s Monk’s encyclopaedic and joyous considerations of silence that secure his place in the pantheon of past, present and future improvisational music as much as his jewel-faceted tunes and mould breaking/remaking harmonics.
UPDATE!!! The Thelonious Monk Theorem has been peer reviewed by King Dave hisself and has earned a slot on prestigious The Funny Name Theory page. It’s a dream come true, folks!
i grew up listening to all kinds of jazz with my father, and always found his music interesting. always loved his name too, the only thelonious i ever encountered.
Thanks, ksbeth! That’s cool! My Pop used to play 78s of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bessie Smith.
I saw Monk in ’83 or ’84 in Toronto. I was a new mom and about a hundred times that night he would play something that would make my milk come in and I was soaked. Fortunately I wore black and it was a dark club. The guy is from outer space.
Thanks, Rio! That’s a great story! It would be something to see Monk live.
His music was so complex that you would get completely lost but his musicians payed apt attention always and the transitions were out of this world. Seriously. The man was out there! He did this thing where all of a sudden he was playing “Somewhere over the rainbow” and you didn’t know how he got there but it was seamless. Last century was something to behold. I feel sorry for the babies.
Nice musical commentary, Rio! Thanks to you, I can picture Monk doing “Somewhere over the rainbow.”
Rio, my Monk anecdote (can’t remember where I read it) is that he was found standing near the front of a bus idling at a Greyhound depot, grooving on the musical overtones made by the engine.
🙂 This image makes me very happy.
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Angular and slow are weird words in tandem to describe music. Prior to my son playing the trumpet, the only jazz I’d listened to was the Vince Guaraldi Trio in Charlie Brown specials or the coffee background music in Jerry Seinfeld’s comedian and cars program. But even I heard this odd bird’s name as a young person. If he’d gone by Thelious, that sounds like the Greek god Helios, no? And that might have made sense with the sphere, orbiting the sun and whatnot. I wonder if anyone has named his dog Thelonious?
Thanks, Kerb! Vince is great! Chick Corea’s cover of Vince’s Great Pumpkin Waltz is also great–my personal Halloween favorite. You know the Greek pantheon better than I, at least enough to connect Thelious with spheres. Cosmic!
There’s got to be someone who’s named their dog Thelonious.
I found this great live clip of “Epistrophy,” which has always been one of my favorite Monk tunes.
I guess it took doing the post on Monk for me to start getting into his actual playing (as opposed to others playing Monk). I’m starting to see how that minimalism works.
I first discovered Monk when I was at university. I loved his name so much I named one of my fish after him, but that was a long time ago.
Great musical selections. And following up on Kerbey’s Greek reference, I love that the definition of epistrophe is the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Only Monk redefined it in a musical form with Epistrophy.
Thanks, Fannie! I didn’t even get that with Epistrophy/epistrophe. (I thought is was some play on “epistemology” and “trope” or something like that.) Now I can hear it different.
Oh man, this post is a thing of beauty! I’m enjoying listening to the jazz while reading too. Great stuff!
…AND a new addition to the Funny Names Theory! That is a beautiful thing – feel free to post it on the Funny Names Theory page, because it definitely makes the cut!
Yo KD! You’ve been in my thoughts!
Thanks for the comment!
You know I’m a huge devotee to the FNT page, so it’s a major achievement to get to add a theorem! I’m going to be floating on that highlight for a couple of days!
Congratulations Wdydfae on your own FNT! Woot! Woot!
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