Jazz legend hails from Eastern North Carolina

Published 5:21 pm Friday, January 31, 2020

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A couple months ago, I stumbled across a feature story from Our State magazine entitled “Soundtrack of the Decade.” It briefly profiled three North Carolina natives who made an impact on music during the 1940’s. Those three musicians were Earl Scruggs, John Coltrane, and… Thelonious Monk.

I knew those first two were from North Carolina (Scruggs from Cleveland County and Coltrane from Hamlet), but the third name was a complete surprise.

Thelonious Monk, an influential jazz pianist responsible for many famous jazz standards, was born in Rocky Mount in 1917. Though his family moved away to New York City when he was around five years old, his earliest days began not too far from the Roanoke-Chowan area. That revelation still impresses me because I never guessed he was from North Carolina originally. You don’t usually think about many famous people coming from this area.

When I first started listening to jazz music, it felt like an overwhelming number of musicians and songs to get familiar with. But early on, I easily remembered Thelonious Monk. (Who could forget that name? He was named after his father, and according to the “Our State” article, “Thelonious is the Latin form of St. Tillo, a seventh-century Benedictine missionary who was taken into slavery.”)

I’m still a jazz novice, to be honest, but I enjoy some of Monk’s music. According to his biography on Blue Note Records’ website (a label he recorded with occasionally), some of his most notable compositions are “Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “52nd Street Theme,” and “Blue Monk.”

The Blue Note biography also catalogued the ups and downs of his career. Critics in the mid-1940’s to 1950’s were wary of both him and his musical style.

“Because he left a lot of space in his rhythmic solos and had an unusual technique, many people thought that he was an inferior pianist. His compositions were so advanced that the lazier bebop players assumed that he was crazy. And Thelonious Monk’s name, appearance (he liked funny hats), and personality (an occasionally uncommunicative introvert) helped to brand him as some kind of nut,” the biography states.

But he persisted, and eventually he gained the acclaim his music deserved. He continued to perform until the early 1970’s. Though he didn’t often return back to the state he was born in, he did play for a week at a popular Raleigh jazz club, The Frog and Nightgown, in 1970.

He passed away in 1982. His son, T.S. Monk, is carrying on the family tradition as a musician himself now.

A historical marker honoring Thelonious Monk was erected in Rocky Mount in 2012. It simply reads “Jazz pianist, composer, and architect of bebop. Wrote “Round Midnight” (1944). Born 1 mile S.”

Again, I think it’s really cool that one of the most famous jazz performers of all time was born about an hour away from where I live. If he were alive today, I bet he’d probably call himself more of a New Yorker than a North Carolinian, but I’ll still claim him anyway! It’s a fun fact to know.

I was thinking about Thelonious Monk recently since this year’s Black History Month is just kicking off. Every year we talk about the most famous African Americans and their contributions to shaping history, but I wonder how many more are from North Carolina. Let’s spend this month looking for other Black North Carolinians who’ve made history!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.