You could say bebop was born in October 1917. It wasn’t until the 1940s that this complex form of modern jazz was played or heard, but that one autumn month 100 years ago was when two of bebop’s principal architects first came into the world.
Pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were born eleven days and 170 miles apart—Monk in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on October 10, and Dizzy in Cheraw, South Carolina, on the 21st.
Along with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and a few others, Monk and Gillespie would develop a revolutionary style of jazz that was more harmonically complex than the early jazz and swing that came before it. Initially dismissed by older musicians, bebop captured the imagination of younger players and profoundly impacted all jazz that came after it, establishing the DNA of the classic jazz of the 1950s and 60s. Both men were also known for their personalities and sense of style.
Let’s take a closer look at these two legends as we celebrate their centennials.
Monk: the high priest of bop.
If finding your own voice on your instrument is the highest goal in jazz, then Thelonious Monk may be the most successful jazz musician ever; his piano playing is instantly recognizable. As great a player and bandleader as he was, he arguably had a bigger impact as a composer. Dozens of Monk’s catchy tunes, with their jagged, syncopated lines, became standards and are still learned and played today. In fact, he’s the second-most recorded jazz composer in history, behind only Duke Ellington.
Here are some ways to check out Monk and his music.
Genius of Modern Music, Volumes 1 and 2
Compiled from Monk’s first sessions as a leader, these sides from 1947 and 1948 include early versions of several of his most famous tunes, including “Round Midnight,” “Ruby My Dear,” “I Mean You” and so many others.
This album from 1957 finds Monk leading a stellar band (including Sonny Rollins and Max Roach) through four of his own tunes plus the standard “I Surrender, Dear.” Standouts include the 13-minute “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” and the title track, which was so difficult to play that it had to be assembled from different takes.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
The great saxophonist John Coltrane landed in Monk’s band in 1957 after being fired by Miles Davis. The group with Monk and Trane was a sensation at NYC’s Five Spot Cafe, but sadly it didn’t record much in the studio. This concert recording from 1957 was discovered decades later and was a major event for jazz fans when it was released in 2005.
Recorded in 1962 and released in 1963, Monk’s Dream was the pianist’s first release for Columbia Records. It includes five of his own tunes and a few standards, including a moving solo rendition of “Just a Gigolo.”
For a deep dive into Monk, check out Robin Kelley’s exhaustively researched Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, from 2010. This was the first full biography published about Monk, and it’s sure to be the definitive one for years to come.
Last but not least, check out the great 1988 documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. Directed by Charlotte Zwerin, the film includes interviews along with live performances and offstage scenes from a 1967 European tour. Here’s a clip:
Dizzy: jazz ambassador.
Dizzy Gillespie had immense technical ability on the trumpet, and his speed and flash were perfect for bebop, which emerged out of New York jam sessions in the early 1940s. His small-group recordings of this era with saxophonist Charlie Parker set the standard for the new style. Dizzy later fronted his own influential big band and helped popularize Latin jazz through collaborations with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and others. Later in his career he toured extensively, mentored younger players and was the quintessential jazz elder statesman when he died in 1993.
Here’s a clip of Gillespie and Parker from 1952:
To learn more about Diz, check out To Be or Not to Bop, his 1979 autobiography. But you’ll probably want to start with the music. Here are some recommendations:
Gillespie’s groundbreaking work with Charlie Parker, recorded before the album era, can be found on various compilations released under Parker or Gillespie’s name. This one features some later big band tracks as well.
Dizzy Gillespie and His Big Band in Concert
After his early bebop small-group work, Dizzy brought the new sound to the big band format. This live date from 1948 features “Manteca,” co-written by Dizzy and percussionist Chano Pozo, who died shortly after this recording.
The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall
This legendary live bebop date was recorded in Toronto in 1953 with an all-star group: Gillespie, Parker, Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums). Several of Dizzy’s compositions are heard, including “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia.”
Sonny Side Up
Two saxophonists named Sonny—Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt—join Dizzy on this 1957 blowing session for Verve Records. The opening track, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” features Dizzy on vocals.
Max + Dizzy, Paris 1989
In this fascinating live recording from late in his life, Dizzy is paired with the drummer Max Roach in a duo setting. Dizzy’s trumpet chops had diminished somewhat with age, but his ideas were still strong. The 2-CD set includes an interview with the pair reminiscing about their early days playing together.
Happy Birthday, Monk and Dizzy!