I need to begin with a disclaimer. I am not really a musician, and I haven’t had much musical training. I have been trying to learn to play guitar for the past three and a half years, with some success, but not enough to move from saying “I am trying to learn” to “I know how.” So, musicians and musical theorists might take issue with what follows, including this, my starting point: Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and (here is the more controversial part) he is even more of an innovator than Charlie Parker.
If you accept the second (controversial) part of my starting point, this means that we need to learn how to listen to Thelonious Monk. Whatever training (formal or informal) our ear has undergone, we are not prepared to get what Monk does. In fact, the first time you listen to Monk, you might think, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?”
So, we need to listen to Monk in a way that is Monkish or Monkified. But first, I need to say a little about music theory and a little about my way of thinking about jazz in general.
When you read about Monk, what most music critics say is that he uses dissonance. True enough. I would just add that it is not dissonance alone that marks what Monk does; rather, it is how he builds dissonance into a traditional harmonic structure. In other words, he tricks your ear into thinking that his dissonance can have its own kind of harmony. To explain this, I need to say a little (very little) about music theory and my way of looking at jazz.
Music theory is mathematical. The math rather precisely lays out what it means to harmonize chords and notes within a particular key. The chord progression for G major is not the same as for E minor, but the same internals apply. This is why a well trained musician can switch from one key to another with little thought.
Chords, for example, are based on a 1-3-5 structure with systematic variations. So, if you are building a G major chord, you start with G then add B (the 3rd) and D (the 5th). If you want a minor G, you flatten the 3. If you want a major 7, you add the seventh note (or F) to the chord. If you follow this mathematical structure through all its levels (won’t bore you with it here), you have a system for building harmony.
It does become very complicated, but my basic point is that there is, in music theory, a mathematical system for working out harmony. How you want to view this is up to you. You could, for example, say the mathematical precision of harmony is yet another indication that mathematics is at the core of reality, physics as well as music. We hear chord progressions as pleasing because they are, in reality and mathematically, pleasing. Or, you could believe that our ears have been trained to accept this mathematical approach to harmony. In other words, we are just accustomed to this mathematical approach to harmony. Monk would agree with the latter.
I also need to say something about how I view jazz. To me, in my personal and non-musician view, jazz is about exploring the limits of harmony. A good jazz musician will find ways to depart from the melody line without losing it completely. Some jazz artists depart from the rhythm of the melody line and others depart from the actual melody by adding notes, taking notes away, or replacing note.
Now, back to Monk. What I see him doing is varying the melody line by, to some degree or another, playing the spaces that the mathematics of harmony say are out of bounds. Most commentators on Monk will say that his music employs dissonance (that is, it establishes its own intervals). I would say, in a variation of this, that his music is structured around an interplay of harmony and dissonance. For example, he might run through a chord progression that is a traditional and recognizable harmony and then throw in one chord that doesn’t fit. At other times, he might play a series of chords that are all discordant and then slip in a simple scale, running through the entire scale, exactly as laid out by the mathematics of harmony, one note at a time, as if he is saying, “In case you forgot, this is what strict harmony sounds like and, by the way, isn’t it pretty boring.”
When I listen to Monk, I play attention to how his chords, which don’t sound like anyone else’s chords, have their own movement and structure, but I also listen for where he moves into a rather traditional harmony and then how he varies it.
If you start to enjoy Monk, you will find it interesting to listen for his influence. You might be surprised by how often you start to hear Monk in others and where you hear a Monkish break with harmony. Here is an example for you to try out. After listening to Monk, put Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on and pay close attention to the piano riffs. I think you will hear some of Monk’s dissonance.