June 22, 2024


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Monk’s music will guide musicians to their philosophical centers for many years to come: Video

Thelonious Monk’s recording career as a leader only lasted twenty-four years, from 1947 to 1971. When it comes to horn players, most people interested in Monk associate him with the tenor saxophone, and rightfully so as Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Rouse stand tall in Monk’s recorded legacy.

The alto saxophone was present from his first record as a leader, but no alto players were able to contribute substantially beyond strong work as sidemen. Gigi Gryce stands out as the only alto player to play with Monk in a quartet format on a fascinating record he led called Nica’s Tempo, which includes four Monk compositions. Trumpet players also had difficulty establishing themselves in Monk’s world. More questions remain as to why the alto saxophone and trumpet didn’t work as well as the tenor in Monk’s music, but that is not my goal here. What follows is an examination of the trumpet players that worked for Monk, both lesser and well-known, and what their musical experience was in Monk’s musical world.

Thelonious Monk crossed paths with trumpet players at Minton’s Playhouse including Joe Guy, Hot Lips Page, and Roy Eldridge. For his first record as a leader on Blue Note, Monk hired seventeen-year-old alto player Danny Quebec West, cousin of Ike Quebec. On trumpet, Monk enlisted twenty-four-year-old Idrees Sulieman (1923-2002). Sulieman was born Leonard Graham but changed his name after joining the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical sect of the Islamic faith. Sulieman previously played with the Earl Hines big band while both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were in the ensemble. Sulieman’s most significant solo with Monk is on the pianist’s original “Humph.” A Monk adaption of rhythm changes, it sounds like advanced bop with some call and response built into the melody. Sulieman had one chorus where he has control of bop language and phrasing, with a slight strain. He is playing under the direct combined influence of Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie. At twenty-four, Sulieman had not yet created a clear sound or identity, and in Monk’s world, he was a survivor. Ten years later in 1957, Sulieman recorded with Coleman Hawkins on a record titled The Hawk Flies High, adding some Clifford Brown but still not having a clear voice. Sulieman still had an odd vibrato and peculiar tone. Having moved to Europe in 1961 Sulieman also recorded with Eric Dolphy on sessions that were later released as the Stockholm Sessions. Now in a musical environment possibly even more challenging than Monk’s, Sulieman again adapts and survives. Later on in the mid 70’s Sulieman did some recording as a leader for Steeplechase, but he sounded nervous and seemed to be pushing too hard. Of particular note is that the tune “Eronel,” long credited to Monk, was a collaboration with Monk, Sulieman, and possibly Sadik Hakim. I see Sulieman as a jazz journeyman, who worked hard and challenged himself in demanding harmonic environments throughout his life. Playing through never-ending chord progressions as your sole basis for improvisation is a steep hill to climb on trumpet. While Clifford Brown, Dizzy, and later on Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw were masters, this obstacle may be one reason why Sulieman remains in obscurity.

Just over a month later Monk recorded more music for Blue Note, but hired twenty-two-year-old Sahib Shihab (Edmund Gregory) on alto and twenty-eight-year-old George “Flip” Taitt on trumpet, again going with the bop front line format. Taitt was a swing trumpet player who tried to jump off a cliff into Monk’s music. He had a sound but struggled as did seemingly everyone on some level that worked with Monk. On “In Walked Bud,” Taitt only solos on the A section, having trouble with all the bridges on that date. Monk wrote a complicated piece called “Who Knows?” for the session that took eight attempts. On Taitt’s one solo chorus, like Sulieman, he survives but has a more pressing time. The challenge of the piece is the placement of the chords. After an opening measure of G minor 7, the next chord F Sharp 7 comes in on the third beat of the second measure. At a fast tempo, this is an exceptionally tricky environment to build ideas in if you’re tethered exclusively to the chord structure. While Monk’s bop line melody zips by, the real melody is in the movement of the chords. “Who Knows?” might better be titled “Where’s Coltrane?” who excelled with these type of challenges. As for Taitt, Robin Kelley had no more information on him. I hope in his musical life he found other environments to encourage his natural relationship with music.

Monk’s last session for Blue Note was in 1952 with Max Roach, Lucky Thompson on tenor, Lou Donaldson on alto, and twenty-eight year Kenny Dorham (1924-1972) on trumpet. Dorham had already replaced Miles Davis with Charlie Parker where he spent a year. He came to this session with his sound and playing style intact. On “Skippy,” Dorham handles the up-tempo “Tea for Two” chord changes with ease and sounds relaxed despite the speed. On “Hornin’ In,” Dorham only gets to solo over the A section. As he works through Monk’s chords, his response is not to attack, but instead to let it happen. He doesn’t reach for over-complex ideas. It’s a Charlie Rouse approach and keeps the vibe of the piece flowing. On the sixteen-bar piece titled “Sixteen,” Monk mercifully calls a medium tempo for a dissonant and difficult line. Dorham only gets one solo chorus but takes his time, and swings with feeling. “Let’s Cool One” has Dorham with an opening solo chorus where he sounds like Miles Davis with Charlie Parker but with Dorham’s sound. Later on, Dorham would have to fill another player’s shoes when he replaced Clifford Brown with Max Roach after Clifford’s tragic death, a near impossible task. From 1958-1964 he recorded as a leader. In a continuation of the tragic lives of jazz trumpet players, Dorham suffered kidney disease and was forced to curtail his playing. He worked at the post office and Manny’s Music store while he also did some freelance writing for Downbeat, going out of his way to condemn free jazz players, especially Giuseppi Logan in a scathing review. Dorham succumbed to the illness in 1972 at 48 years old, truly underrated. He was one of the trumpet players to successfully navigate a course through Monk’s music.

Next up we reach trumpet player Ray Copeland (1926-1984), recording with Monk for the Prestige label in a quintet in 1954 while working at a day job in a paper company. Highlights include Copeland handling a relatively brisk version of Monk’s “Hackensack” and some choice blues phrasing on “Locomotive.” Copeland studied classical trumpet and was eventually able to work in music full time by 1955. He had a fat, bright, and pungent tone and had by 1954 created a style that worked for him combining bop with some swing and blues elements. The only stylistic influences I can detect are Charlie Shavers and Clifford Brown, but Copeland’s tone is less distinctive. He had a personal inner tempo and superimposed his playing on top of Monk rather than more personal interaction. In 1957 Copeland played on a famous Monk album titled “Monk’s Music” with none other than Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenors. He solos directly after Coltrane on “Well You Needn’t” and “Epistrophy.” On both solos, Monk strolls leaving Copeland in a trio format where Art Blakey generates an enormous feeling of swing. In Robin Kelley’s book on Monk, we learn that Monk warned Copeland that elaborate runs in the upper register were impractical because it left him no time to breathe. Monk would later say that extreme range playing took away Dizzy’s tone. Copeland also worked with Monk outside the studio on live dates. In 1957 he recorded a record with Phil Woods, where he continues to reach into the upper register where he escapes all of his influences. On “Green Pines,” he uses a Harmon mute but plays as if he is playing an open horn, dodging the penchant of players for playing a Miles type number. In the process, he sounds more like Lee Morgan who played with a Harmon mute loud and directly into the microphone, whereas Miles played softly. In 1964, Copeland recorded with pianist Randy Weston where he sounds like Jon Faddis when Faddis doesn’t play like Dizzy Gillespie, though Faddis didn’t start recording until 1969! On flugelhorn, Copeland dodges his influences. Playing flugelhorn is choosing to embrace sound over range, except in the case of Red Rodney who was able to do both.

In 1967 Monk insisted to George Wein that Copeland join a European tour as part of a larger ensemble over Clark Terry. Both Copeland and Terry ended up with Monk in a nonet performance captured on November 3rd of that year in Paris with interesting results. Throughout the concert there is creative tension between Monk and Copeland. On “We See,” Copeland starts his solo without Monk behind him and uses the melody but on the bridge resorts to total and aggressive chord change outlining. He then enters a type of abyss where he vacillates between fast playing and upper register explorations that don’t sound connected to the melody or Monk himself. On “Epistrophy,” Copeland switches to flugel. On his solo, Monk tries to connect with him but it sounds like they each can’t hear or aren’t listening to each other, much like a musical disagreement. Copeland ends up going his own way, but has a hard time owning the situation like Johnny Griffin. On “Oska-T,” Copeland and Monk can’t connect and the modal environment seems to feel uncomfortable for Copeland, whose playing style is based on more distinct chordal movement. Jimmy Cleveland gives us a rare chance to hear a trombone solo with Monk. He starts off very relaxed, almost too much, then switches to high range and fast technical playing, almost in retaliation against himself, or perhaps he just changed his mind or suddenly felt a different gear. Clark Terry later solos on “Evidence,” mostly in a trio format in one of the most adventurous solos of his career. Clark uses his technique, sound and style aggressively challenging his own boundaries, validating Charles Mingus’ claim that with Clark he could make the quintessential avant-garde album. Clark returns to solo on “Blue Monk” using his plunger where he and Monk connect effectively while both being true to themselves. The blues of course become the common ground that seems to unite all jazz musicians. Throughout this concert there seems to be a creative tension between Monk and all the horn players. As the horns are placed or pushed outside their comfort zones, they respond with technical assaults, trying to overcome the tension with virtuosity.

Getting back to Copeland, he was also a teacher and composer, premiering his “Classical Jazz suite in six movements” at Lincoln Center in 1970. In 1974 he published a book called the Ray Copeland Approach to the Creative Art of Jazz Improvisation. Copeland was also the musical director of the great album by Archie Shepp titled Attica Blues. Mr. Shepp told me that he had enormous respect for Copeland and at one point they both had to overcome physical diversity that challenged their embouchures. A last shocking fact is that while appearing on 101 recordings, Copeland never recorded as a leader. His son was the late drummer Keith Copeland.

Donald Byrd (1932-2017) holds a unique place in jazz history. Before he recorded with Monk’s ten-member ensemble at a live concert at Town Hall in 1959 for Riverside records at twenty-six years old, he had already recorded seven albums as a leader and appeared as a sideman on over fifty recordings. Byrd was in huge demand as a sideman who began recording at twenty-three in 1955. He could adapt to the music of many different musicians and bring his version of bop with a unique tone and pacing. On “Sweet Sapphire Blues” as a sideman with John Coltrane, he plays an almost five-minute solo where he attempts Coltrane’s sheets of sound on trumpet. Especially interesting is what happened when Byrd entered Monk’s house. According to Robin Kelley’s research, Monk was especially hard on Byrd, telling him not to play so loud like he was playing alone, and especially not to solo exclusively on the changes. When Byrd questioned him as to why, Monk told him to focus on the melody. During the Town Hall concert, Byrd seems to be on the fence between his approach and Monk’s perspective. On “Friday The Thirteenth,” Byrd takes his time and plays his with his sound and style, adapting to the environment, but he only has to play over four descending chords. The melody is a type of haunting bop line that lets Byrd remain intact. On “Little Rootie Tootie,” Byrd plays the changes clean and fast but is unable to utilize the melodic content. When Monk lays out towards the end of the solo, Byrd continues playing the changes where that may have been the opportunity to play more melodically. On “Off Minor,” Byrd takes a Charlie Rouse approach but the changes playing is still apparent. Monk again gives him a trio section halfway through his solo, but he continues to outline the changes. The challenge remains to any musician playing Monk’s music to use the melody as the primary basis for improvisation. The key may be that Monk’s songs contain a unique rhythmic swing that can be used as a basis for the improvisation, instead of being compelled to spell out each chord change. From 1958 to 1976 Byrd recorded almost exclusively for Blue Note and also became an educator. During the 70’s Byrd made a surprising turn to a rhythm and blues focus into a form of pop-jazz that sold quite well, using his students from Howard University that eventually formed a separate project called the Blackbyrds. Byrd did return to straight-ahead playing part-time while continuing to teach in the final stage of his life.

None of the trumpet players that worked for Monk reached as deep an immersion level as Thad Jones (1923-1986). Thad hailed from the famous jazz family in Detroit with his older brother, pianist Hank Jones, and younger brother, drummer Elvin Jones. He became famous with the Count Basie Orchestra as a featured soloist and arranger where he worked from 1954-1963. During this period, Jones recorded as a leader on trumpet for Charles Mingus’ Debut label in 1954 and Blue Note in 1956. In 1959, Orrin Keepnews from Riverside records and Monk agreed to add thirty-six year old Thad to Monk’s group, with exciting results. In Robin Kelly’s book on Monk, Monk is quoted as saying Jones was a better trumpet player than Miles Davis. The record, titled Five by Monk by Five, features Jones extensively as well as tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Known to switch between trumpet, flugelhorn, and cornet, Jones brought his cornet where his crisp, burnished, crackling and fat tone brought out a personality in Monk’s music unlike anything in Monk’s other recorded work. Throughout the date, Jones becomes the leading melodic voice. During Jones’s solos, Monk often starts comping, and then leaves Jones in a trio format. Monk does this to trumpet players quite often. On “I Mean You,” Jones has a second solo in trio format where he slowly adds and builds into a display of his power from his big band work. The solo is a masterpiece of tension and release as if arranged for a large ensemble. On “:Ask Me Now,” Jones’s melodic lead voice on a Monk ballad is another prominent feature. Throughout the recording, Jones maintains his identity while successfully navigating Monk’s compositions, all without being compelled to outline each chord change. In 1963, forty year old Jones was hired and featured in a Monk led big band in a live concert at Lincoln Center. This performance is the quintessential moment for Monk in his relationship with the trumpet, again with Jones on cornet. Jones plays so much he could have received featured billing. On the opening piece “Bye-ya,” after a one minute statement of the melody, Jones plays the first solo of the concert, lasting a full three minutes. Halfway through Monk lays out giving Jones a trio format, where Jones’s lyricism is only enhanced, as he is in total control. On the following piece, “I Mean You,” after a one minute statement of the melody, it is Jones again with a lead off solo lasting three minutes. This time Jones has an orchestrated big band background to play over where he sounds especially comfortable, and it’s seen that the band’s rehearsal time paid off. Monk comps for a chorus and again leaves Jones in a trio formation where he is able to convey the melody. Jones solos again on “Evidence” showing how though improvised, his solos can be seen as complete arrangements after he plays them. He uses contrasts in volume and tempo in sections to great effect. On Monk’s response to modal playing titled “Oska T.,” Jones demonstrates the power of playing this way at a simmering tempo rather than a boil. Essentially a vamp in A-flat concert, Jones serves up a clinic on brass technique with a no-pressure delivery. The environment enables Jones to sift through his style to his center where he has a song that he sings that is the underlying foundation of all of his work, his core lyricism being revealed. On “Four In One,” after a one-minute arrangement of the theme, Jones again takes the lead solo. He plays in a way where his tone leads the notes, even while playing fast. Here he utilizes the difficult melodic material. Jones constructs lines that are clear, concise, and precise while using chord extensions very effectively. Jones is revealed to be the most successful brass player to work with Monk by swinging and using the melody while improvising creative new ideas in his voice. You can hear the chord changes, but he is never restrained by them. In 1965 Jones formed a very successful big band with drummer Mel Lewis. In 1978 Jones moved to Denmark and led a big band called Eclipse from 1979-1984. He returned to the United States to lead the Basie orchestra in 1985, but ill health had him return to Copenhagen where he died from Cancer in 1986 at 63 years old. Two records that Jones played on as a sideman to incredible effect are The Hawk Swings with Coleman Hawkins and Ca’Purange with Dexter Gordon.

Before the Monk big band date with Thad Jones, Monk recorded a live record in 1960 and hired trumpeter Joe Gordon for the record titled Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk on Riverside. Harold Land also joined the group, now with two tenors including Charlie Rouse. Here we have a chance to hear a trumpet player live in a small band format with Monk who included a standard and his own classic “‘Round Midnight.” Joe Gordon was a talented bop player with a touch of swing thrown in. He played in the Dizzy Gillespie big band and had the opening solo on a “Night In Tunisia” before Lee Morgan. He also worked for Horace Silver. Gordon recorded an album as a leader at twenty-six years old in 1954 for the EmArcy label. Charlie Rouse was on tenor which most likely led to the Monk collaboration as Gordon was living in Los Angeles when Monk traveled out to the west coast to San Francisco. Playing with Monk, Gordon maintained his almost complete reliance and focus on straight ahead bop. He possessed excellent ears and musicality and achieved real interaction with Monk on “San Francisco Holiday,” also known as “Worry Later.” On “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” Gordon maintains his bop prime bop directive with a solo containing no tension and no change in dynamics, a common trait in his music overall. On Monk’s “Evidence,” he plays a solo section where Monk leaves him alone in a trio format battling talking customers. His clear ideas swing, again with no tension as if he were seeking a form of perfection. The question remains, did Gordon not hear tension? On “‘Round Midnight,” Gordon plays bop at a slower tempo, with his tone more exposed and revealed. In 1961, Gordon had one more record as a leader titled Lookin’ Good for Contemporary. He appeared on thirty-five records between 1951-61 and also lived to thirty-five. He died in a fire in 1963. His music was like a pure extraction and amalgam of the bop style used by Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Red Rodney, and Miles Davis while being slightly less organic.

The last trumpet player to be hired by Thelonious Monk was Lonnie Hillyer for a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1976, but unfortunately, there was no recording made. Hillyer (1940-1985) was another bop trumpeter who liked to take his time and also throw in some slightly restrained blues. He spent most of his recording career with Charles Mingus and had no dates as a leader. On a record Mingus titled My Favorite Quintet, Hillyer has a lengthy solo on a piece titled “So Long Eric” where he begins playing entirely solo introspective solemn blues before the rhythm section erupts into different tempos. Somehow, Hillyer refuses to engage them and continues as if he were observing rather than participating in a musical paradox of sorts, as if he were in another space and time. The level of caution in which he approached Monk is unknown, but regardless, his musical honesty deserves respect. At thirty-three he retired from active playing and was a teacher for the final decade of his life, falling to Cancer in 1985 at forty-five years old.

Throughout my study on Monk’s trumpets, I’m not trying to disregard Clark Terry’s album with Monk as a sideman In Orbit, that is often credited to Monk as the leader. Dizzy Gillespie, the unofficial leader of George Wein’s Giants Of Jazz tour that included Monk had a long and personal history with Monk that deserves further study. Miles Davis’s relationship with Monk deserves further research. Benny Harris crossed paths with Monk while recording with Coleman Hawkins. Trumpeter Vic Coulson replaced Benny with Hawkins and was a favorite of Monk’s who went on record crediting Coulson with new directions in music and saying he found his phrasing more interesting than Dizzy. Descriptions of Coulson’s style are low-key, understated, impeccable, and even neat. Charlie Parker was quoted as saying Coulson played things he never heard before, citing him as an inspiration to pursue his music. In 1945 it was believed that Coulson was overcome by alcoholism and he faded into legend. Finally, Nick Travis (1925-1964) was a sideman on Monk’s 1963 big band recording on Columbia, but he took no solos. Travis was primarily a big band and studio musician, though he appears on a TV Show called Jazz Party in a staged battle with the great cornetist Rex Stewart playing “There Will Never Be Another You.” Travis plays a down-the-middle no-risk Dizzy influenced style while Stewart was borderline playing free improvisation. Both of them are very much into their cigarettes. Travis suddenly died from a problem with ulcers at the age of only 38 years old.

What I believe it revealed in this examination is that Monk had a unique understanding of the trumpet, in some ways more than the players themselves. As revealed recently by his son T.S Monk, the trumpet was his father’s as well as his own first instrument! At the core, a common challenge that all trumpet players face is how the technical difficulties of the instrument work in the context of playing chord changes. The harmonic world of Thelonious Monk deepens this challenge. The trumpet is known as the melody instrument, but in Monk’s world, many musicians let the chord structure lead the way, often not realizing that Monk’s harmonic movement is melodic as well. Monk’s melodies are often so personal and pianistic that one wonders how they can be translated, or spoken on trumpet. Thad Jones emerges as the trumpet player who went deeper than all others. Still, no trumpet player reached Charlie Rouse’s status as the lone horn on extensive recordings and live performances. The tenor just seems to naturally sound correct in Monk’s music with its particular range and sound. Of course, it’s more than the instrument; it was Charlie Rouse himself who made it work, partially because while he was present, the musical spotlight was still on Monk himself. John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin had a way of pulling the ear in their direction. Here in 2017, in my own Harmelodic Monk project, I’m seeking a new perspective on Monk’s music based entirely on melody. I believe Monk’s music to contain secrets to the inner workings of jazz that scholarship cannot teach, secrets that can only be reached by playing. I imagine Monk’s music will guide musicians to their philosophical centers for many years to come. As Monk himself said, he liked all instruments as long as they were played right.

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