“Genius is one who is most like himself.” —Monk
Thelonious “Sphere” Monk was born in 1917, the middle child of Barbara and Thelonious Sr. They lived in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but would soon move the family to New York City where Monk would later go on to establish himself as one of the all-time greatest jazz musicians.
A piano prodigy, Monk officially began classical piano lessons at age 11 but his learning began earlier when he taught himself to read notation by following along with the lessons being given to his sister, Marion Barbara. “I learned how to read before I took lessons, watching my sister practice her lessons, over her shoulder,” Monk said in a 1963 TV interview with New York’s channel 13.
By age 13, he was winning the amateur music competitions at Harlem’s Apollo Theater weekly, to the overwhelming extent that the organizers felt forced to request he no longer enter the contest. Four years later Monk dropped out of Stuyvesant High School to begin playing professionally. By 1941, he was performing at Minton’s Playhouse with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, a time and place many would point to as the foundation of Bebop. The Blue Note recording for “Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1” in 1947 was the first record by Monk under his own name.
Seven years later, Monk would release the song “Blue Monk” on the “Thelonious Monk Trio” album, from tracks produced under the Prestige record label. A version of this song exists on most of Monk’s live albums. The unique take on a basic blues progression is one of his primary contributions to the canon of jazz standards, and it has been played by countless musicians since, including nearly 30 recorded versions, by the likes of John Coltrane, Christian McBride, Chick Corea, Art Blakey, Bill Frisell, and many others.