The Atlantic

Thelonious Monk's Quiet, Slow Conquest of the World

For decades a respected but somewhat eccentric figure even within the jazz scene, the pianist and composer is at the peak of his influence as he reaches his centennial this month.
Source: William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress

The peak of Thelonious Monk’s fame came in 1964, in his 47th year, when his painted portrait—dourly glowering or shyly guarded, depending on the beholder—improbably graced the cover of Time magazine.

Though widely respected by musicians, the pianist and composer had always remained an outlier even in the jazz world, set apart by his singular musical vision as well as his eccentricity, yet his Time cover seemed to represent his ascension to the heights of American culture as a whole.

When the cover was slated to run in November 1963, the nation’s No. 1 hit was the old standard “Deep Purple,” and jazz still seemed dominant. But after John Kennedy was shot, Time bumped Monk. By the time the story ran in February 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had begun a dominant run as the Beatles’ first No. 1 in the United States. Jazz was over as a mainstream force in American culture and so, arguably, was Monk. From then until his death at just 64, in 1982, he struggled increasingly with ailments physical and mental, stopped writing new music, experienced increasing critical disdain, and finally disappeared from view for nearly a decade.

Where is Monk today? This month marks his centennial—his birthday was October 10—and given his importance to jazz and American music broadly, the occasion is strangely, disturbingly quiet. There are a handful ofseries. Perhaps, however, the subdued celebration looks less like neglect and more like evidence of how Monk, once the quintessential outsider, has come to dominate American jazz, 100 years after his birth and 35 years after his death.

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