This Day in Black History: Oct. 10, 1917

Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, the founder of bebop and one of five jazz musicians to cover Time magazine, was born.

Posted: 10/10/2013 12:00 AM EDT
Thelonious Monk

Jazz music would not be the same without pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. Monk was born on Oct. 10, 1917 in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, and relocated with his family to Manhattan in 1922, where he began playing the piano at the age of six. He is recognized as one of the pioneers of jazz and architects of bebop.

Monk was a music enthusiast who was both self- and institutionally-trained, having spent time studying at Juilliard School of Music. His ear for music and talent was so undeniable that by the age of 13 he had won the weekly amateur contest at the Apollo Theater so many times that he was barred from entering anymore.

When he was 19, Monk joined Milton's Playhouse in Harlem; and in a collaborative effort with musicians, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he helped found bebop, a modern style jazz. It was set off by the swing movement, which provided a more upbeat tempo than traditional jazz.  

Monk made his first recordings in 1947 as the leader of the Blue Note, a famous jazz club in Lower Manhattan. That same year he married Nellie Smith, and the couple would have two children Thelonious, Jr. and Barbara. Over the course of a decade, Monk would record with Miles Davis, Charles Parker and Sonny Rollins. He gained international fame for his work on Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. The Thelonious Monk Quartet, which included John Coltrane and other musicians, became a staple in Manhattan with weekly performances at the jazz club The Five Spot.

Monk’s contributions to jazz music led him to cover Time magazine in 1964, becoming one of five jazz musicians to do so. Monk toured the world and performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. Although he died of a stoke on February 17, 1982, Monk’s legacy lives on. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of the musician, the Smithsonian Institution immortalized his work and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a non-profit educational organization founded by the Monk family in 1986, helps teach and train up-and-coming musicians.

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(Photo: William Gottlieb/Redferns)

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