Artspeak: Men in Gray…Monknificent

wynton marsalisLast Friday night, March 6, 2009, my mom and I had the pleasure of listening to the “Men in Gray,” also known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Pulitizer prize winning music director Wynton Marsalis. Their tribute to Thelonious Monk, performed at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, highlighted the range and genius of Monk’s contribution to jazz. Born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonius Sphere Monk lived in New York City with his family from the age of four onward. He attended Stuyvesant High School, but never graduated; and while his sister took piano lessons, Monk’s affinity for music and the piano were essentially self-taught, and began as early as age nine, signaling him as a musical child prodigy. Monk is considered a standard bearer by jazz aficionados, and one of the innovators of “bebop.” This style of music gained popularity in the 1940s, replacing the then-popular “swing.” Bebop, sounding like its name, consisted of fast tempos, improvisation, and emphasized the different pitches and chords (harmonic structure) over melody. Other bebop giants included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and later Miles Davis.

In his heyday, Monk was known as a virtuoso improvisational, but difficult to follow, jazz musician. His style included a heavy percussive style, punctuated by silences and hesitations, playfully dubbed “Melodious Thunk.” The Men in Gray captured this unique style of Monk, when playing some of his standards such “Epistrophy,” “Light Blue,” and their own tribute to Monk.

thelonious monkWhat marks Wynton Marsalis’ directorship of the impressive Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is its immense diversity—orchestra members, all wearing gray suits, represent almost every racial/ethnic spectrum of the rainbow; the age range reflects the orchestra’s commitment to intergenerational musical dialogs; and every member is given the opportunity to shine in solo performances. There is a playful camaraderie and appreciation of each other’s talent that was reflected in the orchestra’s musical style and group interaction. One can only hope that in the future, women musicians might be added to this powerful American treasure; notwithstanding this one oversight, for surely there are powerful jazz women musicians who’d love to join, the Men in Gray were nothing short of impressive.

If you didn’t get a chance to listen to the group this time around, a word of advice: the next time they’re in town RUN, don’t walk, to hear the Men in Gray laying down the cool action of jazz, swinging the cool action of jazz, improvising the cool action of jazz—and that folks, is an epistrophy!

For more on Thelonious Monk or on Marsalis playing Monk:

Irma McClaurin is an anthropologist and also Associate Vice President for System Academic Administration, as well as Executive Director of the Urban Research and Outreach Center at the University of Minneapolis. Her latest essay, “Walking in Zora’s Shoes or ‘Seek[ing] Out de Inside Meanin’ of Words’: The Intersections of Anthropology, Ethnography, Identity, and Writing,” was just published in Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing (Wiley 2009). The views expressed are entirely her own.

©2009 McClaurin Solutions

Updated 3/12/09 7:10pm

Updated 3/8/09: 10:25 am

3/7/2009: 11:52am

March 12, 2009
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