'MONK@100' brings life to the legacy of musician Thelonious Monk

Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, N.C., in 1917. This year his legacy is celebrated in Durham with "MONK@100."
Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, N.C., in 1917. This year his legacy is celebrated in Durham with "MONK@100."

Before Thelonious Monk revolutionized American music alongside players with names like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, before he raised eyebrows and lit up souls, by playing in the cracks and experimenting with dissonance, he was just a kid from Rocky Mount, N.C. And in just a little over a month, the legacy and music of the singular jazz icon will return in full force to where it all started, or, to be precise, roughly 90 miles from where it all started.

Oct. 17 through Oct. 26, Monk’s mammoth legacy will be on full display at the Durham Fruit & Produce Company—the site of Duke Performances’ “MONK@100: A Century of Genius,” a ten-day event commemorating what would have been Monk’s 100th birthday.

The event aims to provide an immersive experience, traversing the entire Monk songbook in one way or another. The concerts will include a variety of musical configurations. That means everything from solo pianists working through Monk’s compositions to the JD Allen Trio playing alongside assorted soloists to duos working in tandem. In short, the musical offerings of “MONK@100” run the gamut of the icon’s career; no easy feat. In addition to conventional concertizing, the event will include a public conversation moderated by former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff, a pair of free public jam sessions, listening stations equipped with Monk’s records and work by Raleigh-based artist André Leon Gray, who is creating a backdrop for the stage and two or three sculptural pieces.

“We’re spending significant resources and a lot of energy making this festival around Thelonious Monk because we think he’s important, because he’s from the state of North Carolina, because he’s one of the most important composers, musicians, thinkers in the history of American music and, of course, jazz,” Duke Performances Executive Director Aaron Greenwald said.

In planning “MONK@100,” Greenwald enlisted the help of co-curator Ethan Iverson—who, in addition to being an active pianist and member of the band The Bad Plus, also writes extensively on the subject of jazz for his website, Do the M@th. He is, in the words of Greenwald, “a total jazz geek from head to toe.” Iverson’s comprehensive knowledge of Monk’s sizeable oeuvre and his feel for which artists might work best in the performance space made him an ideal collaborator on “MONK@100.”

A cursory glance at the musicians slated to play the event reveals the wealth of jazz talent Duke Performances and Iverson have gathered for “MONK@100.” It is a mix of national and North Carolina-based musicians.

“There’s a really good community of jazz musicians in Durham,” Greenwald said. “We want to integrate the excellent musicians from the Durham community with the musicians we’re bringing in.”

Of the five pianists who will take turns playing through the complete Monk songbook during Saturday and Sunday of the event, three of them have unique ties to North Carolina. Chris Pattishall is from Durham, Frank Kimbrough is from Roxboro and Jeb Patton, Trinity ’96, is a former Duke student.

Though the format of “MONK@100” is unique, it will not be the first time Monk’s legacy has been honored in Durham. A decade ago, in celebration of the jazz icon’s 90th birthday, Duke Performances launched a far-flung series titled “Following Monk.” The series unfolded over the course of six weeks and included around 16 separate events, examining Monk’s broad cultural influence through varied mediums, including dance, music and a meta-theatrical project.  Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran brought his “In My Mind,”a mixed media piece centering on Monk’s iconic Town Hall concert, to that series. In Moran’s words, it is “[his] history meets Monk’s history meets the history of America.”

Moran will return to Durham for Duke Performances’ latest celebration of Monk. This time, he will perform as part of a duo alongside composer and multi-instrumentalist—this time, drummer—Tyshawn Sorey. And though Moran has studied and interpreted Monk’s compositions extensively, he still feels there are new layers to identify.

“When he was 90, America was in a different place, and now that he’s 100, America’s in another place,” Moran said.  “So how do you paint his songs? What kind of brushes to the surface now that we are where we are?”

“MONK@100” will bring together a variety of musicians with different understandings of Monk’s legacy and divergent interpretations of his enigmatic, at times, confounding, style. What the tenor quartet sees in his work may not be what the solo pianist does.

“Monk is so deep in such an unusual way; he’s a conundrum in the world of jazz,” Stephen Anderson, professor of composition and jazz studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said.

Monk only spent a few early years in North Carolina before moving north, but his legend is so towering, his influence so thick in the musical ether of Durham—and everywhere else, for that matter—that celebrating his legacy, here, anywhere, feels natural.

“[Celebration of Monk is] the kind of thing that you would hope would happen everywhere, but it was great that his home state of North Carolina gave up the props to Thelonious Monk,” Moran said.


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