Thelonious Monk is one of the most prominent historical figures in our community. You can see his mural on Main Street. A few blocks up from the mural, near the Douglas Block, is a historical marker dedicated to him. February 17, 2023 marks the 41st anniversary of his death in 1982.
Monk was born on the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount in 1917 after his parents moved to the area in the late 1800s. While his family decided to leave the South like many other African-Americans in the early 20th century in pursuit of greater opportunities, moving to New York in 1922, the influence of the first few years of his life would shape him in several profound ways.
In particular, the music of the church in his childhood would leave a lasting mark on him. His mother’s influence and strong morals would also affect his upbringing. A few years after moving to New York, Thelonious Monk, after receiving a piano as a gift, learned to play, and his legacy as one of the most influential jazz artists would begin to form.
Monk’s musical legacy is rich. He is remembered for an unusual style that often broke with standard conventions, even though he was a fan of classical music and took significant inspiration from it.
He was known somewhat as an eccentric personality, which is also reflected in the unique nature of his music. He broke the rules of music, and his perfect pitch and his personality allowed him to create an original sound. His popularity surged in the 1950s, but his legacy continues today.
Monk is considered one of the all-time great jazz musicians, along with the great Duke Ellington. In 2006, he received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to jazz.
His music has grown in popularity since his death, and since the centennial of his birth in 2017. His work is studied in various music programs around the nation, and it continues to capture the imaginations of many people around the world. Despite only living in Rocky Mount for a few years, his influence on our community can be seen in various buildings and businesses.
Several of his songs, including “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Well You Needn’t,” “Blue Monk,” and “Ruby, My Dear” have become prominent jazz pieces. The sheer volume of his work is astounding, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start.
If you want to hear the music of one of the greats who was shaped in his early years by our community and history, The Essential Thelonious Monk would be a great place to start, as it features many of his most iconic hits. It is available on Amazon Music, iTunes, and other platforms.
This information is largely adapted from Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography, which is a great resource if you want to learn more about Thelonious Monk.