Local Arts

Get more familiar with NC's Thelonious Monk (before his music stars at Charlotte Jazz Festival)

Thelonious Monk: “All you're supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them.”
Thelonious Monk: “All you're supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them.” William P. Gottlieb

In the 95-year history of Time magazine, only five jazz musicians have been portrayed on its cover. Two of them — one in the flesh, one in the spirit — will be present April 13 at Knight Theater.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis will lead the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a tribute to Thelonious Monk, who was born 100 years ago last October.

Marsalis has been a Monk devotee for decades. He recorded a 1999 tribute album, “Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk.” As managing and artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, he’ll do his third annual Monk Festival Oct. 25-27 in New York, leading and playing Monk’s music on three stages. The orchestra now has more than 40 Monk compositions in its songbook, and Marsalis aims eventually to include all 72.

Marsalis has also built a relationship with Blumenthal Performing Arts, whose Charlotte Jazz Festival has swelled to a week-long event. It begins April 9 with the first of five free lunchtime concerts in the Jazz Pavilion at Levine Center for the Arts. It ends Sunday afternoon with the last of a dozen free jazz performances at the Pavilion concerts there.

In between come a “Hamiltunes” concert, appearances in Romare Bearden Park by the Baylor Project and Parlor Social, late-night jams, a young artists’ competition, a Saturday morning Jazz Brew and gigs by the Joey DeFrancesco Trio, Pedrito Martinez Group and Mwenso and the Shakes. Marsalis will front two orchestral tributes, one for Monk and another for Leonard Bernstein on April 14.

Those two composer-pianists seem like yin and yang. Bernstein was extroverted, beloved, trained at fine schools, a best-selling artist, an inveterate borrower who worked jazz into his classical and theater scores. Monk was painfully introverted — he barely spoke even to his own musicians on his final tour — respected mostly late in life, self-taught, rarely a boon to record companies, a purist whose music sounds like nothing produced before him.

But while everybody knew the man affectionately called Lenny, far fewer people knew Thelonious Sphere Monk. Read on to find out who he was.

1. He came from North Carolina: Rocky Mount, where he lived until he was ready to start elementary school. By some freak of geography, four great jazz musicians of the 1950s — John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and Monk — were all born within 225 miles of Charlotte. All left the Carolinas by the age of 18 to study or play music elsewhere, and all but Gillespie (who came from Cheraw, S.C.) entered the N.C. Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

2. Monk took longer than any of his contemporaries to gain fame. His recordings didn’t sell well for 20 years, from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. After Monk signed with Blue Note Records, co-founder Lorraine Gordon visited a Harlem store to find out why his discs didn’t move. The owner responded, “He can't play, lady. The guy has two left hands.” Only at 45 did Monk earn $50,000 in one year, after Columbia signed him in 1962. The label promoted him heavily and sent his quartet on a sold-out European tour.

3. Musicians copied his hipster style, from his pointed goatee to his beret. (Monk loved hats: porkpie, fedora, faux lamb’s wool, Japanese skullcap.) But pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later taught jazz at Duke University, said they couldn’t copy his playing, no matter how often they scribbled on shirt cuffs or tablecloths. He was an architect of be-bop, AKA bop, the style based on unexpected key changes, complex chord patterns and improvisation on harmonies. (Some notable others: trumpeter Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, drummer Max Roach.)

4. His compositions vary widely in mood. Some are playful, some mournful. Some bounce, some move in a stately procession. Some riff off a simple melody, some swirl through convoluted variations. Essential tracks: “Round Midnight,”“Straight, No Chaser,”“Rhythm-a-Ning,”“Blue Monk,”“Crepuscule with Nellie.” According to Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, who wrote the book “Jazz: New York,” only Duke Ellington’s tunes have been recorded more often. (By the way, Ellington also got a Time cover. The other two jazzmen were Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck.)

5. The debate about mental illness goes on. Boston police found him wandering around Logan Airport and took him to Grafton State Hospital. According to Time, “He was quickly released without strings, and though the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again, he now tells it as a certification of his sanity. ‘I can't be crazy,’ he says with conviction, ‘ 'cause they had me in one of those places, and they let me go.’ " Son Thelonious, a jazz drummer, said in the 1988 documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” that his dad sometimes didn’t recognize him and had to be hospitalized multiple times in the late 1960s.

6. Monk expressed himself almost entirely through music. Even in jazz, a world famous for people who are laconic, inarticulate or withdrawn, he stood alone. When he was happy, his body took over: He’d leave the keyboard as someone in his band took an exhilarating riff, dance silently to it, then dash back to the piano and take off himself. Coltrane said Monk loved music so much he could spend hours discussing it, but he remained monosyllabic on many topics.

On that Time cover, he peers in three-quarter-face at the viewer, chin tucked down protectively and eyes warily expecting to be misunderstood. In the story, headlined “Jazz: The Loneliest Monk,” he’s rarely quoted for more than a few words at a time. He’s most eloquent on his philosophy of music. "All you're supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them," Monk says. "If you ain't doing that, you just ain't a musician. Nothing more to it than that.”

Charlotte Jazz Festival

“The Music of Thelonious Monk” starts at 7:30 p.m. April 13 in Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St. Tickets cost $25-$92.50. Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org. To learn about all the other events, go to blumenthalarts.org and search for “Charlotte Jazz Festival.”