A Monk'estra Manifesto
A few nights ago, I watched the film La La Land (I bet you weren’t expecting an article about MONK’estra to start with this—stay with me), and somewhere between the beautiful musical theatre dance numbers and shots of Emma Stone’s Prius in front of a purple L.A. sky, I was given a firm lesson in jazz appreciation thanks to Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian.
In La La Land, Sebastian has made it his personal life mission to save the Jazz genre from dying out and falling victim to a disinterested Millennial audience. He’s a traditionalist who worships Hoagy Carmichael and Miles Davis and dreams of opening his own jazz club. He is floored when Emma Stone’s Mia claims she thinks jazz is boring and insists it’s because she has “no context.”
I’m a Millennial and I hate to admit it, but I’ve been in Mia’s camp pretty much my entire life.
So, in honor of Sebastian’s fervent insistence that EVERYONE should appreciate real jazz, I decided to turn myself into a connoisseur of the jazz genre. The thing is, it’s a pretty expansive genre and I have a deadline to meet, so instead I’m going to learn all about one jazz band in particular: a big band project called MONK’estra, who takes the stage on August 24 for our Bayside Summer Nights summer concert series.
I used an entire Wednesday to sequester myself at my desk do a deep dive into the world of MONK’estra. I wanted to learn who they were and what made them special. Not to brag, but eight hours ago I didn’t know anything about this band and now I’m pretty sure I could recite their entire repertoire.
I started my meticulous research where anyone else would in the year 2017: on Google. A quick search told me that MONK’estra is a musical project dreamt up, arranged and conducted by Grammy® nominated musician and composer John Beasley and contains 15 musicians.
With MONK’estra, Beasley aims to capture the spirit of jazz legend Thelonious Monk’s musical style with a modern twist. Using Monk’s iconic piano tunes as a base for his arrangements, Beasley incorporates Hip Hop and Afro-Cuban rhythms into the more traditional orchestrations.
The natural first step to learning what MONK’estra is all about would be to learn about the man with the music that inspired it all: Thelonious Monk.
Mike Waters, a family friend and Jazz aficionado, was kind enough give me a history lesson on Thelonious Monk’s music and life and career. He laid it all out for me via phone call while I rapidly took notes.
Waters explained to me that Thelonious Monk was a New York jazz pianist who was mostly self-taught and widely regarded as a genius within his community. He was obstinate and unapologetic about his music; it was nothing like anyone had heard before but he was proud of his unique style.
Waters described Monk’s music as “jarring.” He explained that it wasn’t supposed to be pretty or pleasing to the ear, but was meant to grab your attention and keep it. Everything about Monk’s orchestrations is “slightly off kilter” – he utilized heavy crashes and cords that always sounded just a little out of tune. Monk was a risk taker and it was a testament to his genius that he had enjoyed success with music that was described by Waters as “not traditionally pleasing to the ears” and “a little weird.”
Monk was also known for being a quirky dude, including playing piano with flat fingers instead of bent, dancing in circles around his piano mid-song and wearing a different funky hat every day. A man after my own heart, truly.
Although he initially enjoyed success performing in night clubs around New York, a spurious drug charge in 1951 caused him to lose his Cabaret Card. Without this card, Monk was unable to perform in any venue that sold liquor, thus putting his performance career on hold. During the time his Cabaret Card was confiscated, Monk spent most of his time composing, recording and building up his vast body of work.
Waters suggested that in order to familiarize myself with Monk’s music, I watch a performance of his most popular song, “’Round Midnight,” on YouTube, and I obliged.
I noticed his affinity for funny hats and flat-fingered piano playing right off the bat. I could immediately understand why he would be so endearing to watch onstage. He played with genuine enthusiasm and it was clear to me how easily he allowed himself to get lost in his music and forget that he was onstage and being recorded. He played with such certainty that it seemed as though he was saying, without words, “I DARE you not to tap your foot along to this tune.”
When Waters described his music as “jarring,” I was unsure about what exactly he meant or why he was so insistent that Monk was a genius. I figured I’d have to hear it with my own ears to understand and I was not wrong. When I hit play, it immediately captured and held my attention in a way no other type of jazz music had before. I could tell that this was this kind of music people are talking about when they refer to “real jazz.” This was definitely the kind of jazz that Ryan Gosling’s character in La La Land worshipped so fervently. It was not warm and fuzzy or smooth and melodic. It wasn’t meant to be background music on an elevator or at a cocktail party; it existed to be the center of attention. It exists to be dissected and examined and listened to over and over again.
… to John Beasley’s MONK’estra
Fast forward 60-years to present day, Monk’s music is still prominent in the jazz community. Of the many musical undertakings that have kept his music alive over the years, John Beasley’s MONK’estra has been among the most successful and unique.
Beasley has been playing Jazz piano since the 1980s and has recorded with legends like Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock. In a LA Weekly interview, Beasley discussed working with Monk’s 1960s bassist Larry Gales during his teenage years. Gales not only ensured that Beasley knew how to play a large number of Monk tunes, but instilled in him Monk’s wisdoms and ideas about music.
In the interview, Beasley recalls a specific bit of “Monkian wisdom” that Gales passed along to him: “Kid, ya gotta learn how to breathe when ya play.”
Beasley also discussed how complex he found Monk’s tunes to be, referring to them as “pre-modal jazz” with “harmonic and rhythmic challenges.”
MONK’estra was born around 4 years ago as a way to explore Monk’s music in a modern context. It celebrates the eccentric-yet-delightful New Orleans-style music that Thelonious Monk dreamt up and throws in flavors and sounds that have never been
While Monk was known for his abilities as a pianist, Beasley reimagines his music in the form of a big band. He put together a band of 15 top tier jazz musicians as a musical “experiment” that surpassed his expectations in popularity and propelled his career in an entirely new trajectory.
By listening to MONK’estra’s rendition of “’Round Midnight” directly after hearing Monk’s original, I immediately picked up on the trademark slightly off kilter beats and rhythms that I had come to know and enjoy. It was evident that Beasley had done some tweaking and modernization that brought the song into 2017 while maintaining its original rhythms and 1940s spirit. Every other MONK’estra song I heard after this was similar; the musicians were careful to preserve the old school feel of Monk’s tunes (Sebastian would be proud) but were adventurous enough to throw in more contemporary harmonies and flavors. I found it pretty much impossible to stop bobbing my head along with the music and barely managed to keep myself from getting up and dancing (…and I’m sure my coworkers appreciated my willpower).
After spending an extended period of time grooving my way down the MONK’estra YouTube rabbit hole, I was finally able to declare victory. I, a textbook easily-bored Millennial, had taught myself to appreciate a genre I’d been spending years dismissing as elevator music. All it took was a history lesson, a conversation with a true jazz buff, and a whole slew of catchy tunes blasting through my earbuds.
I left work that day as a more musically well-rounded and cultured person, and I blasted jazz music all the way home.
MONK’estra will be performing as part of the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights. Join us on Thursday, August 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Embarcadero Marina Park South for what is sure to be a fantastic evening!
Tickets can be purchased at www.sandiegosymphony.org
Stephanie Zumwalt is the SDSO’s Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator. She took this personal #SymphonyQuest journey after Social Media Manager Kayla Wilson told her to write something fun about Monk’estra for the blog. Stay tuned for our upcoming series on the best classical music and burrito pairings for the 2017-18 Downtown Season.
*Fun notes from the band... in La La Land one of the signature scenes with Ryan and Emma sitting at a table...the Jazz musician in the back is one of the MONK’estra members, Bijon Watson. Also on screen is Ryan Dragon, trombonist. Two other MONK’estra members were not on screen, but played in the score: Bob Sheppard, our lead sax player, and Peter Erskine, drummer!Share Article
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