The portion of Manhattan above 110th Street is a world of magical transformations, where frogs become princes. This is where lowly, non-descript Sixth Avenue assumes the more majestic moniker of Lenox Avenue and where Central Park West, the avenue formerly known as Eighth, becomes the mighty Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It's a place where cab drivers try to get your attention.
It's only fitting that music should be reinvented in the same mysterious way, that an old familiar standard like "Sweet Georgia Brown" should find new life as "Bright Mississippi," where "Blue Skies" is reborn as "In Walked Bud," where "Tea for Two" becomes "Skippy," and "I Got Rhythm" is magically transformed into "Rhythm-a-Ning."
The man responsible for these changes is the greatest of all jazz wizards, the legendary Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917–82), whose 90th birthday is being celebrated with an elaborate concert this Thursday at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center as part of the Highlights in Jazz series. Although the concert will feature the fine pianist Kenny Barron, the poet and statesman Amiri Baraka, and the actor Rome Neal in a theatrical portrayal of the jazz colossus, the chief attraction will be Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet, a remarkable ensemble led by Monk's longtime drummer.
Monk is generally described as a composer, a pianist, and a bandleader, but in the early 1940s he fused these activities to invent a new approach to jazz, in which nearly every element that previously existed in the music was alchemized into an original blueprint. No less remarkably, Monk was at the forefront of this Harlem-based revolution that transformed music even though he never lived in the area. He was born in Rocky Mount, N.C., but it wasn't long before his family joined the massive northern migration of black Americans and settled on West 63rd Street, which was then a black neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. He continued to live there as Harlem established itself as the focal point of creative black musical expression, and he remained on 63rd even as the area surrendered its ethnic identity with the construction of Lincoln Center in the mid-'60s.
As a youngster, Monk, who learned from the sagacious Mary Lou Williams, was wellversed in the history of jazz piano; he had mastered the Harlem stride style (the pianist Billy Taylor recalls a time when he and the young Monk hung out with Willie "the Lion" Smith, trying to learn what they could from him) and also immersed himself in blues and early Gospel music, having toured the deep south as accompanist with a religious troupe. He helped lead the charge that brought forth bebop, joining Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, and Kenny Clarke as a founding father of the new music — and its first pianist. Their experiments created bop in the late '30s and early '40s when the five (in various combinations) jammed together after hours at Minton's on West 118th Street, where Monk served as house pianist.
Playing a central role in the creation of bebop was hardly the end of Monk's development; even after bop emerged and began to infiltrate the rest of the jazz world, Monk continued to develop his own music, which sounded like no one else's. His radical technique, which left an unusual amount of space in rhythmic solos, led many to believe that he was an inferior pianist. When he recorded as a leader-composer for the first time, his own distinct brand of modern jazz was nearly perfected. In 1947–48, on a classic series of sessions for Blue Note Records, Monk introduced a string of early masterpieces such as "Off-Minor," "Misterioso," and "Epistrophy."
Yet his most popular composition was also practically his first: the ballad "Round Midnight," introduced while he was still playing piano for trumpeter Cootie Williams's big band in 1944. Monk's music was at once denser and lighter than most bebop as played by Parker, Gillespie, and their legions of disciples. Monk was deeper and darker, yet more whimsical.
Monk's use of dissonance always had a capricious side to it, as if to make fun of the stereotype of "serious" composer, secluded in an ivory tower and writing artsy, inaccessible music. Monk's music was like Picasso's paintings: For all its artfulness, it was inclusive rather than exclusive; it could be appreciated by the intelligentsia, but one didn't have to be an insider to dig it.
Another quality he shared with Picasso was the element of transparency: When Picasso gave you the image of a woman, you always had a clear sense of what the figure actually looked like as well as what he was doing with it. Monk did the same thing with such familiar standards as "April in Paris" and "I Should Care." It was as if the original melody and Monk's recasting of it existed side by side, like one of those Picasso figures gazing sideways and yet looking right at you all the while. A Monk treatment of a song has everything you expect to hear in it, if not always where you expect to find it.
As he built toward his mature style, Monk continued to alchemize all manner of metals into gold, yet his building materials were often quite simple: "Bemsha Swing" takes as its point of departure a simple two-note interval, a step up a perfect fourth; it goes on from there, but essentially those two notes are all you need to know. Another of his bestknown pieces, "Blue Monk," is precisely that, a straight-up 12-bar blues in B-flat, yet he could also offer more complicated variations on the form such as "Straight No Chaser" and "Misterioso."
Mr. Riley toured with Monk's classic quartet for five years at the height of the pianist's popularity as a working bandleader, between 1964 and 1968. There have been other Monk tribute bands, as well as attempts to re-create his playing and his ensembles and to take the basic sound of his bands and compositions into different areas, but Mr. Riley's current Monk Legacy Septet, which first began working around New York in 2004, is by far the best group to both capture the original spirit of Monk's music and to expand upon it.
The group uses an instrumentation similar to the six- and sevenpiece bands Monk employed on his early Blue Note dates, but the sound of the band, developed by the arranger-trumpeter Don Sickler, is not specific to any one period of Monk's development. The septet's most notable feature is its lack of a piano, the use of which would make the music too much of an imitation — a Monk "ghost" band.
Mr. Sickler has assigned himself the daunting task of capturing the idiosyncratic sonorities of Monk's music, complete with his delightful discords and belly-laugh silences, by distributing Monk's harmonic spectrum over three saxes and a trumpet. There's also a guitarist (Freddie Bryant), who serves to fill out the voicings and solo occasionally (as he does on "Straight No Chaser"), rather than to "replace" the piano.
Monk himself had several more transformations in store, not all of them positive. For the last few years of his life, the Wizard, who was a notorious introvert, became more like a mystical hermit who rarely left the cave-like confines of his 63rd Street apartment. Yet in the last 25 years, Monk has become second only to Duke Ellington as the most performed jazz composer of all time. In the 1980s and '90s, almost every third jazz CD seemed to be a Monk tribute project. His history of reinventing himself — and everything else — is hardly over.