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My history hero: Laura Mvula chooses Thelonious Monk (1917–82)

Singer, songwriter and composer Laura Mvula chooses Thelonious Monk as a history hero

Laura Mvulu and Thelonius Monk
Published: July 8, 2022 at 11:55 am
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Thelonious Monk: in profile

Thelonious Monk was a pioneering pianist and composer in the American jazz scene of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Known for his improvisational style, he composed such classics as Blue Monk, Well, You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight.

One of only five jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine, he is among the most-recorded jazz composers in history. In 1982, Monk died of a stroke aged 64 after a period of declining health.

When did you first hear about Thelonious Monk?

When I was around 11 or 12. My Dad was a huge jazz head and, like Monk, a passionate improviser on the piano. Being the man of the house he dictated what music was played and it was always things like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. When I first heard Monk, I was initially scared of his music because it was so different to anything else that I’d heard up to that point.

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What kind of person was he?

He was eccentric and bold, something of a risk taker and, unlike some of his contemporaries, very much a family man. There was an elusive quality to him too. Monk was quite a reticent figure and would sit down both at rehearsals and social gatherings, and not say a word for hours on end. I have a sense of a mysterious force of a man.

What made Thelonious Monk a hero?

Firstly, his incredible music, having been a part of a pioneering period of modern jazz. Then there was his particular creative story and the fact that he was misunderstood for so much of his career. Because some critics regarded him as “difficult”, he struggled with poor record sales, but he stayed committed to his art and I gather that he’s now the second most-recorded jazz composer ever.

You’ve also got to see Monk’s achievements in the context of the racial climate in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. To rise to prominence as a pianist and composer at that time is another reason why I regard him as a hero.

What was his finest hour?

For me, it would be a tune called Thelonious. I love how Monk fused musical styles: he drew on the blues, but created an angular, displaced rhythmic music all of his own. He could say so much with one note and I have a similar love for this technique, which changes the harmony under a note. It’s almost impressionistic in its subtlety and power.

Can you see any parallels between Thelonious Monk’s life and your own?

I feel an unconscious parallel with Monk because, despite releasing some well-received records over the last 10 years or so, my music has been subjected to the same sort of comments as his. But I have a similar conviction to follow my own path.

Would you have liked to make music together?

Definitely – of all my jazz heroes, he’s the one I would most like to collaborate with and share that bliss you experience when lost in the music. I’d also want to ask him about his (reportedly difficult) relationship with Miles Davis. It’s even been rumoured that they came blows!

Laura Mvula is an award-winning singer, songwriter and composer. She is appearing at the Y Not Festival, 29-31 July. She was talking to York Membery

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This was commissioned for the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Discover more history heroes, our monthy series in which popular figures from the present tell us about who inspired them from the past
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