28 Apr 2018

MONK'estra: the big band celebrating a jazz revolutionary

From Saturday Morning, 9:35 am on 28 April 2018

Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was a musical genius set back by mental health problems he perhaps could have been treated for today, says Grammy-nominated composer John Beasley.

His big band MONK'estra brings their experimental take on Monk's off-beat jazz to the Wellington Jazz Festival this June.

Thelonious Monk circa 1947.

Thelonious Monk circa 1947. Photo: Wikicommons

Monk is now recognised as one of the greatest composers of the last century, but he died a recluse 36 years ago after barely performing or recording music in the last decade of his life. 

He would have been 100 years old last year.

John Beasley

John Beasley Photo: Supplied

"He was a very eccentric young man. In this day and age with some of the medications they have he probably would have been quite like you and me, but I think he had depression and maybe he was autistic – we don't really know. They didn't know what that was back then.

"But he was very much his own man and had a lot of courage to stick with his style, which was so completely different from anyone else of his generation."

Monk's contemporaries were jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but his own sound was unique and he remains the second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington.

"Critics didn't like him at first, he didn't get a lot of recognition until he was quite older.

"Here is an African American genius playing not only jazz, but jazz in a way that was far ahead of its time."

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Photo: Eric Wolfinger

Monk's music is a living, breathing thing, says Beasley, and Monk'estra have fun with his tunes.

"His music is really pliable, like any great composer: Gershwin sounds great in any tempo, Bach sounds good in any tempo. We tend to put different grooves, elongate phrases, we kind of mix things up with his music."


Inside Out: a celebration of Thelonious Monk - part one
Inside Out: a celebration of Thelonious Monk - part two