One Hundred Years of Hiptitude: Monk and Dizzy
I like to hear the voices of musicians talking about the how and why of the music. After spending so much time listening to Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, I feel particularly lucky to have Dizzy’s memoir, To Be Or Not…To Bop. It’s a profound source about his life and work, as well as the words of his friends, family and many of the musicians. Monk left no such memoir that I know of, and seemed to be man of few words. But his interview in Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones, as well as the biography by Robin D.G. Kelley and the film ’Straight no Chaser,’ give a sense of the relationship of his work to his life, and one thing is very clear. These were really different guys. As a young musician, only familiar with their music, this would have surprised me.
The way the musicians tell it, Monk and Dizzy landed independently on a new conception of harmony in the mid to late 1930s. They did it in very different ways. Both born in the Carolinas in October 1917, they converged with their solutions in New York by the early 1940s.
Dizzy, an acolyte of Roy Eldridge who emerged with an original sound under multiple swing era band leaders says, “Our influence on one another’s music is so closely related that Monk doesn’t actually know what I showed him. But I do know some of the things he showed me.” Monk’s approach developed outside any specific system of training or pedagogy, on tour with vaudeville acts and religious tent shows. He was undocumented on record until 1944, and so seemed to emerge fully formed. By 1947 he was ready to record the bulk of his wildly inventive original compositions for Blue Note.
Both acknowledged Charlie Parker as a third pillar in the evolution of this new harmonic approach. Both also mentioned the drummer Kenny Clark as a crucial catalyst in changing the rhythmic feel of the new music. Of course there are many others who played important roles. And the music also had its detractors. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In high school (age 15 or so) I attempted to write an essay proving that Parker was sole true originator. It was an absolute nonsense idea that ended unceremoniously in a failing grade. Pointless. But it did lead me to a lot of music, and both Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie as composers and improvisers have been pole stars for me ever since. And not just their music, but their influence on generations of musicians who have come after, influencing me. There is something about the music of both men that contains the nuts and bolts of learning to improvise, that’s about learning a distinctive compositional language, about learning to think, and live, like a creative artist.
I often thought of Monk as primarily a composer and Dizzy primarily as a performer. That idea is also wrong.
For me, learning the Monk songbook, the core 70 compositions, was what lead me to a greater appreciation of him as a player. I think of the Monk works as analogous to the collection of Bach’s Chorales. Each one takes a simple text and proposes a sophisticated solution, worked over ingeniously throughout the piece. Each one uses the foundational principles of melody, harmony and rhythm to define a new, richly lived musical space that often defies the standard uses of melodic intervals, phrase lengths, harmonic resolutions, and rhythmic flow. To me, the pieces are so convincingly whole because you can play them over and over and find new details each time. Monk did. He paraphrased the melody in almost every moment of his solos. It’s one of the things that makes him a such a powerful and recognizable player.
For me, the overwhelming virtuosity of Dizzy’s improvisations carry daunting lessons (still do). But maybe it is his use of melody to ’spell’ harmony (thus opening the door to Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and generations up to this very day) that led me to reexamine his work as a composer, arranger and band leader. With Dizzy, there’s a warmth of spirit pervading every performance, a generous welcoming of alternative sources of music, and an almost perverse sense of humor used to disarm the squares and the unsuspecting.
The one thing they found at the same time — changing jazz through its use — was the tritone. My feeling is that Dizzy Gillespie arrived at the ‘flatted fifth’ though melodic variation, whereas Monk got to the ‘raised fourth’ though harmonic invention. They both found ways to re-harmonize popular song forms using harmonies based on the use of the flatted fifth / raised fourth. Tritone substitutions became one of the hallmarks of the new sound, and many of their signature compositions used this device in various ways.
In his book, Dizzy mentions that Monk showed him the minor flat five chord. He referred to it as a minor triad with the sixth in the bass. So that would be like Eb minor over C, essentially creating a minor seventh chord with a flatted fifth. When followed by an F7b9 chord, this created an important advance in harmonic voice leading in jazz. Dizzy used this device early on to compose ‘Algo Bueno’ (also known as ‘Woody ’N You’) and ‘Manteca.’ Monk used it in one of his earliest and best known pieces, written with Cootie Williams, ‘Round Midnight.’
For explicit use of the interval itself, just look at the first bars of Dizzy’s ‘Salt Peanuts’ or the melody of Monk’s well-titled ‘Raise Four.’
I was riding in the car a few days ago, listening to a collection of Dizzy’s music I put together. ‘In The Land Of Oo-Bla-Dee,’ the song Mary Lou Williams wrote for Dizzy’s 1949 band, came on. One of my friends said, almost to himself, “That’s the most bebop thing I’ve ever heard.” There it is, the tritone hard at work!
Whether it’s ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’ or ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ Dizzy and Monk define a time and transcend it. Their profound reinvention of form, of rhythm, harmony and melody put them in the pantheon of great creators. I feel like without them, it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to learn to play song-based improvised music. I am grateful to have them in my life.
And I wish Misha Mengelberg, profound Monk devotee, were still around because he would disagree with everything I have said here, including this sentence.
Dave Douglas, New York, October 2017.