Thursday, October 22, 2009

News on Two American Legends: James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk

The history of American Jazz piano begins in the late nineteenth century with the advent of ragtime pianists, whose initial recordings in the 1920's helped to define the style that would merge with others to eventually crystallize into the definitive jazz sound. One of the transitional figures who advanced the linkage between the ragtime and the emerging jazz sound is stride piano legend James P. Johnson. In remembrance of his artistry, a small group of contemporary jazz musicians and enthusiasts gathered at the small West Village New York club Smalls to raise funds to purchase a headstone for Johnson's grave. Wonderful gesture by musicians and jazz fans alike.

Johnson's talents were multifaceted: composer of short pieces as well orchestral arrangements, technical wizard who integrates classical music into his hybrid style and innovator of the "stride style" that laid the groundwork for jazzier improvisations and whose influence on jazz legends like Duke Ellington should not be understated. Johnson's famous composition "The Charleston" helped define the decade of the Roaring Twenties in American Roots music. His well known "Carolina Shout" showcases his prodigious technical mastery in the stride piano style. Johnson's influence is simply fundamental to the development of American piano, his imprint on later greats like Eubie Blake, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson is unmistakable. Johnson's influence on other disciples was even more direct. The stride pianists such as Fats Waller, the incredible Missouri born Ralph Sutton and also his contemporary Jelly Roll Morton and the "professor school" of New Orleans boogie woogie rooted piano are all deeply indebted to Johnson's innovations. Johnson was a prototypical artist whose pioneering piano conmpositions help to define American Roots music.

Another hugely influential force in American Jazz is Thelonious Monk, an enigmatic figure who shunned the limelight and retreated into seclusion to produce some of the most strikingly innovative compositions of American post war jazz. The complexities of the artist and the "aura of cryptic genius" that have surrounded Monk and made him almost as inaccessible as the peculiar harmonic language he created on piano, transforming him into an almost mythical figure in American Jazz are all explored extensively in a new biography by Robin D.G. Kelley entitled "Thelonios Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." This biography has just been released and promises to be a fascinating read for fans of Monk and of American Jazz in general. Based on extensive interviews with surviving members of Monk's family, including his wife Nellie Monk, this biography promises to lift the shroud of mystery that has surrounded Monk since his explosion onto the jazz scene in the early days of Bebop. Drawing on diverse sources such as Monk's own LP collection, access to the writings of Monk's producer Teo Macero, manuscripts from his British patron, lover and longtime associate Baroness Panonica known as "Nica," and extensive interviews with those close to Monk make this long awaited contribution to jazz scholarship a must read for jazz enthusiasts. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

1 comment:

  1. I knew Ralph Sutton and he would have been amused to be referred to as a contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton, since Jelly was born 32 years before Ralph!
    Jelly also was not a stride pianist, and there is no mark of James P's influence on him, although the St Louis ragtimer Charley Thompson (not to be confused with the later jazzman nicknamed Sir Charles Thompson) shows influence from when he met James P. when they were both young.
    And Eubie Blake was some years older than James P. Johnson and played in an older style