Wynton and Marcus Roberts celebrating Thelonious Monk at JALC

Posted on November 11th, 2008 in Concerts | Tags: concerts, jalc, thelonious monk

This November 2008, Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates the musical genius of Thelonious Monk.
On November 15, at 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM, Wynton and friends open the Monk Festival weekend by playfully exploring his unique musical universe. He will host Jazz for Young People: Who is Monk, in Rose Theater.
On November 20-21-22, a very special concert entitled: The Music of Thelonious Monk, by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis presents big band arrangements of Monk’s idiosyncratic compositions and features one of the premiere interpreters of Monk’s music today with pianist Marcus Roberts.
Check Wynton’s beautiful duet with Marcus Roberts on Monk’s Reflections from rehearsals in Marciac 2008 video series.

Marcus Roberts remains in awe of Monk’s “absolutely unparalleled contribution to modern jazz as an accompanist, bandleader and composer,” noting that Monk “was certainly one of the major architects of bebop and so many major people talk about how he taught them—Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie—he taught everybody what the style was about.” But Marcus also reminds us that Monk preferred not to play bebop itself, but that his own music was more thematically driven. “I always think of Monk as a poet who wrote short-form pieces, but pieces infinite in scope of design and in scope of improvisational possibilities,” says Roberts.

For Roberts, Monk’s music “is one-hundred percent about American jazz,” holding the essence of the past, but also the complexities of modern styles. “That’s what I think makes him so special,” says Roberts. “His rhythms are syncopated, there’s so much blues in every melody—he had such a beautiful way of reconciling all the oppositions in our music. His music could sound childlike yet adult. It’s merging of all of the contrasts of emotions, all of the tension that we all trouble with in life: Monk puts it in such a dignified, such a noble context that it’s hard to listen to Thelonious and not feel hope.”

Monk’s roots run deep, drawing from various virtuosos. He picked up where Duke Ellington left off in extending the functionality of the piano in a jazz setting and is linked to the stride tradition of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, but Monk also carries with him the the modern bebop language, putting him in a special position in modern American music. Monk’s contemporaries, notes Roberts, were in awe of him, “and they should’ve been,” he said.

Roberts credits Wynton for his immersion in Monk and his gradual understanding of his music. Listening to Roberts’ mastery of the instrument today, it’s obvious that he took the wisdom master Monk brought to the table. “That’s the beauty of great art,” says Roberts. “Great art doesn’t limit possibilities, it expands them. Monk gave us so many things to explore that we still haven’t explored… it’s just that broad of a philosophy.”

“The biggest thing I take from Monk is the soul of his playing, the feeling of it, the way he made the piano ring different ways,” says Roberts. “I also take his use of space and acoustics. Finally, I learned his understanding of every register of the piano having its own special orchestral mood that it can produce. When you put all that together, you’ve got a whole lot to work with.”