The month of October graced our world with several influencers in the world of jazz, chief among them Thelonious Sphere Monk (b. Oct. 10, 1917), John “Dizzy” Gillespie (b. Oct. 21, 1917), and Art Blakey (b. Oct. 11, 1919; a.k.a. “Buhaina” or “Bu”). Among the biggest names in the jazz pantheon, each of these incredible artists left an indelible mark on the music that continues to impact the music today.
Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious Monk was relocated to the immigrant community of San Juan Hill on Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a young boy. Then a burgeoning artistic community, Monk’s neighbors included Harlem Stride, piano legend James P. Johnson, and many members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as the celebrated cornet soloist Bubber Miley. When Monk’s family acquired a piano in the mid-1920s, Monk’s fascination with the instrument was immediate. He took it up with great verve, and from a very early age made it his habit to have other musicians over to his house to play and exchange musical idea. In the early 1940s, Monk was tabbed to be the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, the storied after-hours hangout of all the beboppers. Through his work at Minton’s, as well as out of his own apartment, Thelonious Monk played a major role in shaping the harmonic vocabulary of Bebop, laying the foundation for all jazz music that followed, earning him the title of “High Priest of Bebop.”
While Monk was at the helm of developing the harmonic language of Bebop, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was at the forefront of drawing the music out of the after-hours musicians’ hangouts and into the public eye. Dizzy cut his teeth in the bands of Teddy Hill and Cab Calloway, drawing on the virtuoso stylings of trumpet icon Roy Eldridge. In collaboration with figures like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, Gillespie was among the chief innovators of the Bebop style, and – perhaps more importantly – was the primary publicist for this strange, modernist music that initially did not appeal to audiences. More than just a charismatic performer, Gillespie was deft marketing savant and spoke intelligently on the music and its proprietors, spreading the gospel of Bebop from coast to coast.
Art Blakey forged his craft in this same crucible. Having begun his professional music career on piano, Blakey switched to drums in the 1930s and played in Billy Eckstein’s band (alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker), and on Thelonious Monk’s first recordings for Blue Note Records in the late 1940s. Blakey quickly garnered a reputation for his fiery, propulsive drumming style, which became hugely influential in the Hard Bop movement of the 1950s and ‘60s through his work as the leader of the Jazz Messengers. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers remained a premiere working band for nearly forty years under Blakey’s leadership, and was a fertile training ground for countless jazz celebrities.
Whether you’re listening to their iconic records, like Monk’s Dream, Bird and Diz, or Ugetsu, or listening to your favorites from other players like Lee Morgan, Geri Allen, or Nate Smith, the presence of these remarkable innovators can always be felt and heard. These titans of Bebop and Hard Bop can be heard throughout the year, but we pay them special homage in the month of October on Jazz 93.5!