It's now 35 years since his death in 1982, and over 45 since his last significant recordings were made. The pianist was 30 by the time he made his first session as a leader for Blue Note, and it took another decade before he began to develop a dedicated following and the respect of critics.
But good things can come to those who wait, and Monk, who enjoyed a fair measure of success in the sixties and a Time Magazine cover story in 1964, is today as iconic as any figure in jazz. His compositions, about 70 in total, are the second most recorded in jazz history, trailing only Duke Ellington, who composed about fifteen times as many works. And even after repeated listens to his substantial recorded legacy, Monk's singular visions of beauty retain a freshness, depth, and element of surprise that will assure his continued appeal.
Here's Thelonious in 1969 playing "Epistrophy." Co-written in 1941 with Kenny Clarke, the drummer who was Monk's colleague at Minton's, the Harlem nightclub that was a staging ground for modern jazz, it was recorded by Coleman Hawkins that year under the title "Fly Right."
From the same television appearance, he played "Crepuscule With Nellie," his dedication to his wife Nellie who was his tireless supporter through the ups and downs of his unsteady career.
Here's T.S. Monk (Thelonious Sphere Monk III) discussing the Jazz Baroness, Pannonica de Koeningswarter, for whom his father composed, "Pannonica."
And here's Monk playing the tune and discussing the Baroness's name.
Monk's most famous and oft-recorded composition is "'Round Midnight." It was premiered on record by Cootie Williams, who was urged to perform it by Bud Powell, Monk's friend who was playing piano in Cootie's orchestra. Williams exercised a fairly common prerogative of the era in taking a co-composer credit for himself. Here it's played by Monk's Quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley in Norway in 1966.