Thelonious Monk: In His Own Style


Thelonious Monk Quartet’s 1963 album on Columbia Records.

Playing and Performance Style

Thelonious Monk is always mentioned with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as a founder of modern jazz, but Monk’s style is not at all like the other musicians of his time. Unusual approaches to harmony, melody, and rhythm give Monk a particular asymmetry that continues to be a heavy influence on the music scene.

Many of Monk’s harmonic ideas were influenced by Art Tatum, whose chords were strengthened by the use of varied voicings, added notes, passing chords and substitutions. While Parker and Gillespie liked to hear these types of chord sequences as background for their solos, Monk seems to have taken Tatum’s approach to another level. By using uncommon substitutions and displacing the harmonic rhythm, Monk’s chords have a sense of deliberate conflict. Some people speculate that a reason for his sour harmonies are a result of early attempts at playing stride when his hands were still too small to hit a clean octave.

Monk’s artistic vision was very strong. He knew exactly what he wanted to play and how he wanted to play it. His playing was so unique and so self-contained that many jazz musicians and listeners didn’t  know what to make of it. Many bebop players of Monk’s time were playing fast, smooth rhythms, trying to fit in the maximum number of notes. Monk, in contrast, embraced space and simplicity in his playing and was able to outline his pieces with a minimal amount of notes. His playing sounded rough and angular in comparison to someone like his friend Bud Powell. It took nearly a generation for Monk’s more obscure pieces to become a regular part of jazz repertoire.

Monk was indeed eccentric, both in his playing and social habits. He made no distinction between seriousness and humor in his musical statements, and critics easily dismissed him. During interviews he seemed aloof and would often go for days without speaking to a soul. He was criticized for dressing unusually, wearing strange hats, eyeglasses and topcoats (even when indoors).

During gigs, Monk often got up and danced while the rest of the band was playing. “…he would rise from the piano to perform his Monkish dance. It is always the same. His feet stir in a soft shuffle, spinning him slowly in small circles. His head rolls back until hat brim meets collar, while with both hands he twists his goatee into a sharp black scabbard. His eyes are hooded with an abstract sleepiness, his lips are pursed in a meditative O,” describes Barry Farrell in his 1964 Time Magazine article.

Some suggest that Monk’s dancing was almost as great as his writing or playing. When asked about it, Monk replied, “I get tired of sitting at the piano. I can dig the rhythm better.” The media had a tendency to report on his bizarre habits more frequently than his musical endeavors.

Each of Monk’s compositions have a personality that can be difficult for a perfomer to bring out, despite their seemingly simple qualities. He was an absolute master of the AABA form. Some of his contributions include : ‘Ask Me Now’, ‘Little Rootie Tootie’, ‘Evidence’, ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, and ‘Well You Needn’t’.

Monk didn’t give much instruction or direction to his band, and musicians sometimes had a hard time following. So complicated are some of Monk’s space-filled, harmonically advanced compositions that very few musicians are able to truly represent them. Orrin Keepnews, from an interview on NPR explains, “…the problem that musicians had, right along with me, is that this was incredibly difficult music and Monk was a man who I believe sincerely did not understand that it was difficult music.”



Monk composed this well-known jazz ballad when he was in his teens. The version I have included is based on his 1947 Blue Note recording, as transcribed by Lionel Grigson. He notes the following alterations from the recording:

“1) The overlapping alto sax and trumpet phrases of the recorded intro have been replaced by a single top line, above the piano part as played. Bars 7 and 8 of the intro a double bass break.

2) The theme, taken by piano, is given as played, but th harmony parts played by trumpet and sax have been omitted. As played by Monk, the theme soon turn into a paraphrase/improvisation. An ‘average’ version of the melody has been added as a top line above the piano part for comparison.

3) The recording finishes, oddly, with an 8-bar piano solo after the theme. Empty staves and chord symbols have been added to make up a full chorus.

4) This version is rounded off with the coda used in various non-Monk recordings of  ‘Round Midnight, e.g. those by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. (This coda may be by Gillespie rather than Monk).”

Original Key: Eb minor

Form: AABA 32 bars (8+8+8+8) plus intro

Tonality: Primarily minor, with a parallel major tonic chord at the end of A2 and B.

Movement: A mixture of arpeggiation, leaps, and chromatic movement in both direction

Harmonic Analysis

Intro: Gm-Fm-Ebm descending progression.

There is a segment of the intro melody that bares a striking resemblance to Dizzy Gillespie’s solo in ‘I Can’t Get Started.’ (Ken Burns Jazz Series, track 4, 2:38). It’s possible that the melody was a common riff of the period, or perhaps it was borrowed from an even older song. Also interesting to note are the overall similariteies in the melodic contour and pacing of these two compositions. See index.

The initial harmonic progression is i – vi – ii7 – V7. The next two measures are unique; the progression leads to a brief key change to Ab (subdominant). This modulation provides some nice descending guide-tones. The progression is Bm7- E7 – Bbm7 – Eb7. The Bm7 and the E7 are upper embellishments of the V7 – I7 (V7 of IV).

The B-section sounds more confusing than it is. It’s based on a vi7(b5) – II7 – V7 progression. There is a tritone sub for the II7 so that the bass line can descend chromatically. This repeats twice then continues down.

On the ending of A2, Monk has condensed the harmonic rhythm, most likely so that he has room to resolve to Eb in measure 16. This play on compression and expansion is a common trait in his compositional style. It’s also evident in the melody of ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ and the rhythm in ‘Blue Monk.’

The resolution at the end of the B-section is an Eb major chord, or a “Picardy third” even though the previous theme has been minor. This is a common technique used in songwriting that dates back as far as the Renaissance. We see the Eb major again in measure 21, beats 3 & 4. In addition to making the end of the B-section sound more significant, it blurs the relationship between major and minor.

In measure 24, beats 3 & 4, the chords could be perceived as part of Eb major or Eb melodic minor, another example of Monk blurring major and minor.

Melodic Analysis

The melody in the first bar outlines a Bb-suspended chord.

Measure 3 outlines an Ebm7 with an added 6. The melodic contour of these two bars is the same, which is characteristic of Monk.

Measure 7, beats 1 & 2 make use of unstable tritones against the root note. In measure 8, things stabilize: the root and melody note are the same, emphasizing the resolution.

This whole pattern occurs again at the beginning of the B-section. The melody dances around the diminished 5th interval in measures 17 and 19. Both approach the root by [m7-3-R], but the second one descends to the root instead of going up. Monk likes to recycle melodic material.

The last 2 bars of A2 are different than than A1. Measures 15 &16 seem like inserted bonus material, delaying the measures we were expecting. The B-section then uses the missing end scraps from A2 as the beginning of the bridge, except that the first two beats have shifted rhythm.

The 32nd notes blooming in the accompaniment are most likely a result of Monk’s style and skill. His playing experience developed into a compositional tool.

Rhythmic Analysis

The rhythm in this piece is more song-like than the majority of Monk’s music. It utilizes repeated rhythmic fragments which gives the listener something predictable to grab onto. The rhythm seems to alternate between two contrasting feels: dreamy (due to the rolling triplets) and precise (because of the sixteenth notes on beat 2).

Another recurring pattern used is the long, lilting 32nd note runs to punctuate the phrase endings.

Monk plays incomplete triplets in measure 13, which makes it sound like the piano part is tripping over itself. The horn line, which doesn’t have a strong sense of downbeat itself, is further affected by the accompaniment. All this creates a floating, slightly disorienting feel, yet still maintains a consistent song structure. And then, as consistent with the pattern, the long descending runs slam into a heavy downbeat. (ex. measure 8).


Original Key: F major

Form: 8 measure phrases

Tonality: based on F6 riff

Movement:  ascending and descending chromatically

Harmonic Analysis

In contrast to ‘RoundMidnight,’ this song is based on half-steps.

A:      F6  Gb6  F6  Gb6  F6 Gb6  F6  F6

There is an alternate bridge in the version I have included and it’s worth comparing it to the original. B-alt. is mainly composed of tritone substitutions, but the harmonic direction changes a half measure earlier than in the original. While the original version repeats the little 2-beat fragment in six descending chromatic steps, the alternate version descends for seven chromatic steps.  What is the reason for this deliberate change? Monk might have started descending earlier in order to avoid playing an F (root) chord, which would not have had much contrast. Keeping the orignial pattern and continuing up to F would have worked fine spacially though.

B:          A7   Bb7   B7   Bb7   A7   Ab7   G7   Gb7

B-alt:     Eb7   E9   Eb9  D9   Db9  C9   B9    C7

Monk avoids playing an F; this keeps things fresh.

F9     E9    Eb9   D9  Db9   C9

This line shows B-alt. with all tritone subs, which would be more              predictable.

Melodic Analysis

The melody is is primarily based on chord tones. There is a two note riff that Monk moves up and down the keyboard. This piece is definitely performance based. The soloists dictate the feel. In a Columbia recording from February 1965, Monk’s solo sounds very earthy and primitive because of all the roots, thirds, and fifths he plays.

The re-harmonized B-section contains a lot of #7’s and b9’s.

Rhythmic Analysis

This tune has a repetitive phrase structure. There are three repetitions of the same rhythm, always starting on the upbeat of 2 or 4, followed by a short 2-bar turnaround after. The ‘answer’ section is carried on into the B-section. This creates  a looping effect, further enhanced as the repetitions get closer together.


“Evidence” was sometimes called “Evidence Just Evidence,” in reference to the song “Just You Just Me” from which the A-section chord sequence was derived. This demonstrates how displacing the harmonic rhythm can completely transform the same chord pattern.

Original Key: Eb

Form: AABA 32 bars

Tonality: Begins in Eb major, with temporary key changes

Movement: A section uses I-iii-VI-ii-V,  B section cycles II-V progression

Harmonic Analysis

The progression in the first 8 bars is quite standard : I – iii – VI – ii – V (no resolution here, half-cadence).

During the A-section, the ii – V progression shifts down chromatically. Monk ends the A-section on a V7/V chord, which projects the movement to the B-section beginning on  Bb minor. The F7 is therefore acting as a pivot chord.

The B-section consists of a series of descending II-V sequences. Although the quality of the chords don’t remain consistent with the key signature, the consistent perfect fourth root motion holds it together. Measure 19 is the first example of Monk changing the quality of the predicted ii-minor to a dominant chord. This occurs again in measure 23.

Melodic Analysis

The melody of the B-section is ascending chromatically. This could potentially sound quite atonal, but it doesn’t since it’s supported by ii-V harmonies. Another example of this is the simplicity of Johnny Griffin’s solo. He’s probably referring to the ‘Just You Just Me’ changes, whereas Monk is all over the map. Many players of the time would superimpose one melody over another, which engages the listener.

Rhythmic Analysis

In the A-section, there are many accented upbeats and tied notes. The downbeat seems to be intentionally hidden. In the B-section, the melody strikes on the upbeat of beat 4, which gives the tune a feeling of anticipation.


Monk copied Irving Berlin’s descending line on this tune, which is based on the changes of ‘Blue Skies.’

Original Key:  F minor

Form: AABA, 32-bar form

Tonality: F minor

Movement: A-section utilizes element from F natural and melodic minor, B-section follows typical minor blues turnaround (bVI-V)

Harmonic Analysis

Monk seems to be exploring the diatonic chords within F-melodic minor as well as F-natural minor in the A-section. Measures 1 and 3 are in natural minor, whereas measure 2 and 4 are in melodic minor:

Fm (I in natural minor) – Fm/M (I in melodic minor) – Fm7 (I in natural minor)

Bb7 (IV in melodic minor) Eb7 (IV7 in melodic minor) – Ab6 (III in natural minor/I in relative major)

Measures 6 and 7 are:

Bbm7 – Eb7 – Ab6  (ii – V – I in the relative major, Ab). The chord on Measure 8 on the first ending is Gm7b5, which occurs in natural minor.

Measure 8 and 9 are a ii-V-I turnaround in F-natural minor.

Use of  both types of minor scales continues in the B-section:

Fm7 (I in natural minor) — Db7 (VI in natural minor)

In measure 15 the Db7 leads to the C7 (V in F-minor), creating a turnaround back to the A- section.

Melodic Analysis

The first three measures of the A-section are simply 3-note riffs moving in oblique motion. Monk uses a lot of skips in this part. The first note descends by half-step while the top note remains a C.

In measure four, the top note starts to descend as well. Although the intervals are changing, the contour of the line stays the same.  The melody continues in a downward motion and contains many major and minor 6ths.

Section-B has a lot more stepwise motion. Monk seems to be emphasizing Cb. Not only is it the highest note in the line, but it is a conflicting non-chord tone used as an upper neighbor in measures 9, 10, 13 and 14.  In measure 11-12, the Cb appears again, but since it’s supported by a Db harmony, it’s a b7 which fits right in. The pattern repeats in measures 15-16.

Rhythmic Analysis

For a Monk tune, the rhythm here is considerably more straight-forward. The A-section has short, 3 note riffs consisting of eighth notes, beginning each bit with a staccato note. The harmonic rhythm speeds up and starts to move in half notes in measures 4-6.

In the B-section, the harmonic rhythm slows down and changes every 2 measures as the melodic rhythm becomes more active with quarters, eighths, and sets of triplets.

–Rachel Hoiem

Rachel Hoiem teaches children at Blue Bear School of Music. She received her BA in jazz piano at SF State University and plays keyboards in the band Bellavista.

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