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Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American jazz pianist and the second-most-recorded jazz composer (after Duke Ellington, who composed more than a thousand pieces, whereas Monk wrote about 70, including "'Round Midnight," "Blue Monk," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby, My Dear," "In Walked Bud," and "Well, You Needn't.") His compositions and improvisations featured dissonances and angular melodic twists, and his piano playing combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of switched key releases, hesitations, and silences. He started playing the piano at the age of six and was largely self-taught, though as a teenager he came to know one of his neighbors, “Charleston” composer James P. Johnson, who had pioneered the stride style of jazz piano and was a model for Ellington and others; Monk named Johnson and Ellington as his main influences. Though born in North Carolina, when he was five he moved to the San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York (now the site of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts), and attended Stuyvesant High School, a public school for gifted students but did not graduate. Instead, he became the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, where he and others developed bebop at “cutting” jam sessions; some of his sessions at Minton in 1941 were among the first bebop recordings, though it was regarded as "musicians' music" that was played by musicians with other money-making gigs who did not care about the commercial potential of the new music. His first studio recordings were done with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet in 1944 and made his first recordings as leader in 1947. In 1951 his New York City Cabaret Card was confiscated due to his refusal to testify against his protégé Bud Powell in a narcotics case. (“In Walked Bud” was one of Monk’s best-known works). As a result, Monk was unable to play anywhere liquor was served until his cabaret card was restored six years later, so he concentrated on composing and recording, though his records sold poorly and his music was regarded as too "difficult" for mainstream acceptance. In 1957 he recorded a tribute to his wife, “Crepuscule with Nellie," his only “through-composed” composition, meaning that it had no improvising. By the late 1960s he was suffering badly from an undiagnosed mental illness, sometimes not even recognizing his son, drummer T. S. Monk. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in 1971. In his final years he no longer played the piano, even though one was present in his room, and he rarely spoke to visitors. He died of a stroke in 1982.
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