Thelonious Monk would have cut a strange figure on Duke's campus.
He was considered odd even on the New York City jazz scene, speaking in curious phrases, clad in unusual hats and-most importantly-playing the strange, halting licks that make him instantly recognizable.
But then, the pianist didn't seem to be too concerned what people thought of him during his lifetime, so perhaps Duke is as good a place as any for Monk to ride again, as the six-week Following Monk festival-celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Rocky Mount-born icon's birth-kicks off next week.
"Monk's music was built on the foundations of gospel, blues and country that he grew up with in North Carolina," said Duke Performances Interim Director Aaron Greenwald. "He took those deep North Carolina roots and experimented with them in the most profound sort of way. What better place to celebrate a North Carolina experimenter than the top research institution in the state?"
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born Oct. 17, 1917, but he made his name beginning in the mid-1940s in New York City, playing with Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis as bebop and modern jazz coalesced. A unique player even amidst these innovators, Monk struggled to find acceptance for his style, a sometimes choppy and jarring approach that was thoroughly modern but also integrated suave, swinging Duke Ellington and the great stride pianists of the 1920s.
He eventually overcame detractors who were befuddled by his character and style, reaching popular acclaim on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964 and near-divinity in the jazz community, where his improvisational style is lionized and his compositions comprise much of the post-war canon. Monk died in 1982.
Fifteen years after his passing, some of his disciples worry that maybe the man's influence is fading. Festival artist-in-residence Jason Moran complains that his students at the Manhattan School of Music seem to have forgotten his hero, and Ant Kelley, assistant professor of music here, describes Monk as an "unsung hero."
"[The festival] is risky in that there are so many people who miss the boat in terms of celebrating Monk," Kelley said. "This is doing two things in that it celebrates Monk, but it also tries to catch in a very wide net the people who might have missed Monk. If we as a Duke community don't make an effort, then we will have missed it twice. If we accept the opportunity, we'll come to an understanding of one of the greatest contributions to American music."
And there's no question that Monk transcends the boundaries of jazz and touches all of American music. Like Kelley, violinist David Harrington, founder of superstar classical string group the Kronos Quartet, was introduced to the pianist by a composition teacher.
"What he wanted me to do was to listen to the way Monk used timing," he said. "What I found myself attracted to-in addition to the amazing sense of timing-was the way I've never heard a pianist before or since that can make a minor second sound more dissonant than Thelonious Monk. In that way he's almost more like a violinist to me, and that's how I can be listening to the radio and I can tell Monk every time."
Kronos, which released an album of Monk-related music in 1985, will play 16 pieces by Monk and other "maverick" composers Saturday, Sept. 15.
The festival marks the first major test of Greenwald's reimagination of Duke Performances, which he has moved toward more thematic programming (a similarly stacked spring series will take on soul music). To pay for the series, Duke Performances drew funding from their own budget but also from the Office of the President and a visiting artist grant.
"I think it's a risk in terms of generating audience to populate 18 different events," Greenwald said. "In a sense the reason that it's a worthwhile risk is that we have not compromised. [We felt,] 'Let's go deep on this, let's really find out who this dude was and try to estimate his impact.'"
The final major piece of the puzzle is Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, which houses The Jazz Loft Project, a treasure trove of Monk memorabilia taken from the archives of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Smith's New York apartment was a nexus for musicians in the 1950s and '60s, and the host obsessively shot photographs and recorded audio, providing rare insights into Monk's thought process and rehearsal regimen.
Moran will integrate recordings of Monk's voice from the archive into his world-premiere In My Mind show Oct. 27. Tapes from Smith's materials record rehearsals for the 1959 Town Hall concert that Moran commemorates, and Greenwald said Monk's words are a valuable supplement to his music.
"It's like when you hear him talk, it shifts the trajectory with which you hear his music," he said. "There's not any interest in taking bulls-. The guy's tough and he's tough about the music."
The festival offers 18 separate events-from music to lectures to theater to dance-between Sept. 14 and Oct. 28. Kelley said he advises against missing any of the shows.
"I plan to attend as many as I can without passing out from exhaustion," he said. "I would say, start at the beginning."
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