Ellington and Monk

Play with Coltrane

A study of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood & Monk’s Off Minor


Alex Thorn

Jazz History




Thelonious Monk


Thelonious Monk is widely recognized as one of the most inventive pianists in any genre of all time. In addition to standing as a bebop revolutionary and vital jazz pianist, Like Edward “Duke” Ellington, Monk is also distinguished as one of the greatest American composers. (Britannica, “Thelonious Monk”)

Though born on October 10, 1917, in North Carolina, Thelonious and his family quickly moved to New York. Unlike most Southern migrants who headed for the bustling Harlem scene, the Monks settled on West 63rd Street in the “San Juan Hill” neighborhood of Manhattan. (Lipman) Before returning south for health reasons, Thelonious Sr. played the harmonica and a little piano, which probably served as an influence to his son’s later musical endeavors. (Britannica, “Thelonious Monk”)

Monk was lucky to be admitted to Peter Stuyvesant, one of New York City’s finest schools, where he excelled academically and musically, though an unspoken “color bar” kept Monk from the school band (in reality, it was probably the band’s loss). A few years later, though, Monk wound up at the forefront of the transforming Jazz scene.

As legend has it, Minton’s Playhouse was where the "bebop revolution" began. The after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s attracted a new generation of musicians brimming with fresh ideas about harmony and rhythm (notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Tadd Dameron, and Monk’s close friend and fellow pianist, Bud Powell). (Mansfield, “Thelonious Monk”) Monk’s harmonic innovations proved fundamental to the development of modern jazz in this period.  

In 1955, Monk signed with a new label, Riverside, and recorded several outstanding LP’s which garnered critical attention, notably Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The Unique Thelonious Monk, Brilliance (re-issued as Brilliant Corners) Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, and his second solo album, Thelonious Monk Alone. (Lipman) In 1957, with the help of his friend and sometime patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he had finally gotten his cabaret card restored and enjoyed a very long and successful engagement at the Five Spot Café with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. From that point on, his career began to soar; his collaborations with Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and arranger Hall Overton, among others, were lauded by critics and studied by conservatory students. It was as if jazz audiences had finally caught up to Monk’s music. (Mansfield, “Thelonious Monk”)

By 1961, Monk had established a more or less permanent quartet consisting of Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore (later Larry Gales) on bass, and Frankie Dunlop (later Ben Riley) on drums. He performed with his own big band at Lincoln Center (1963), and at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the quartet toured Europe in 1961 and Japan in 1964. (, Biography) In 1962, Monk had also signed with Columbia records, one of the biggest labels in the world, and in February of 1964 he became the third jazz musician in history to grace the cover of Time Magazine. However, with fame came the media’s growing fascination with Monk’s alleged eccentricities. Stories of his behavior on and off the bandstand often overshadowed serious commentary about his music. The media helped invent the mythical Monk–the reclusive, naïve, idiot savant whose musical ideas were supposed to be entirely intuitive rather than the product of intensive study, knowledge and practice. Indeed, his reputation as a recluse (Time called him the "loneliest Monk") (Time, Cover) reveals just how much Monk had been misunderstood. As his former sideman, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, explained, Monk was somewhat of a homebody: “If Monk isn't working he isn't on the scene. Monk stays home. He goes away and rests.” (Lipman) Unlike the popular stereotypes of the jazz musician, Monk was devoted to his family. He appeared at family events, played birthday parties, and wrote playfully complex songs for his children: "Little Rootie Tootie" for his son, "Boo Boo's Birthday" and "Green Chimneys" for his daughter, and a Christmas song titled "A Merrier Christmas." The fact is, the Monk family held together despite long stretches without work, severe money shortages, sustained attacks by critics, grueling road trips, bouts with illness, and the loss of close friends. (

In January of 1970, Charlie Rouse left the band, and two years later Columbia quietly dropped Monk from its roster. For the next few years, Monk accepted fewer engagements and recorded even less. His quartet featured saxophonists Pat Patrick and Paul Jeffrey, and his son Thelonious III, took over on drums in 1971. That same year through 1972, Monk toured widely with the "Giants of Jazz," a kind of bop revival group consisting of Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey, and made his final public appearance in July of 1976. Physical illness, fatigue, and perhaps sheer creative exhaustion convinced Monk to give up playing altogether. On February 5, 1982, he suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness; twelve days later he died. (Britannica, “Thelonious Monk”)

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington brought a level of style and sophistication to Jazz that it hadn't seen before. Although he was a gifted piano player, his orchestra was his principal instrument. Like Jelly Roll Morton before him, Ellington considered himself to be a composer and arranger, rather than just a musician. Ellington is the most prolific jazz musician in history, having written thousands and thousands of pieces. Legend has it that he wrote music wherever and whenever he could, in waiting rooms and hotel lobbies, between sets and even at home on his piano. (McDonough)

Born on April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C., Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington began playing the keyboard at age seven, though these original lessons admittedly had little impact or lasting effect on his musical career or life in general. Rather, while on summer vacation in Atlantic City with his mother, Ellington heard of Harvey Brooks, a hot pianist at the time. After his vacation, Ellington sought out Brooks in Philadelphia where Harvey ended up teaching him some piano tricks and introducing him to some different styles of playing. Legend has it that Ellington returned from Philadelphia with an insatiable “yearning to play.” (, Biography) Soon after, the pianists Oliver “Doc” Perry and Louis Brown took Ellington under their wings and gave him some real lessons. Ellington, at the age of 17, dropped out of school and began what would be his fifty year career as a professional musician.

Duke traveled to New York in 1923 with a group of friends from Washington D.C. , The Washingtonians. They worked for a while with banjoist Elmer Snowden until there was a disagreement over missing money and Ellington ended up as the leader. The Washingtonians worked at The Hollywood Club in Manhattan (which was later dubbed the Kentucky Club). During this time, Sidney Bechet played briefly with the band (unfortunately he never recorded with them). More significantly, the trumpet player Bubber Miley joined the band, bringing with him his unique plunger mute style of playing. This sound came to be called the "Jungle Sound", and it was largely responsible for Ellington's early success. (Pinkney, 17)

In 1927, Ellington’s orchestra was hired to play at the Cotton Club in New York after King Oliver unwisely turned down the offer. (Britannica, “Duke Ellington”) Radio broadcasts from the club spread the music of Ellington and his band all over America, causing its popularity to grow and spread all across the nation. The Duke Ellington Orchestra lit up the Cotton Club in New York until, in 1931, Ellington left the club and took the band on international tour that spanned from New York to New Delhi, Los Angeles to London. (, Biography)

Unlike many of the bands in the ‘20s, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was able to successfully make the change from 1920s Hot Jazz to the Swing Era of the 1930s. (Britannica, “Duke Ellington”) For the next thirty years, Duke’s band continued to grow in popularity and success with hit songs like Take the A Train (1941) and Satin Doll (1953). (Toshiya, “Ellington-Strayhorn Songbook)

            Before his death from cancer in 1974, Duke Ellington had presided over a fifty year and played with most of the great musicians of his time, including Louis Armstrong (who once worked for him) and John Coltrane. In addition to playing the piano, Ellington composed multiple thousands of pieces; so many, in fact, that he is the most prolific jazz artist in history. (Britannica, “Duke Ellington”)



            There are few who have had such influence on music as have had Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. And, though their talents on the piano alone set them apart in a group with other great jazz pianists like Herbie Hancock and Art Tatum, each is known for more than simply his aptitude on the instrument: Ellington for his incredible prolificacy and smooth melodies and Monk for his revolutionary and very personalized playing style. (Lipman) Perhaps most interesting about Ellington and Monk, though, was that they were each revolutionary composers in a genre based on and made famous by its improvisation. Thus, the amalgam of virtuosity on the keys and unmatched aptitude in composing ingenuity had supreme impacts on the evolution of Jazz music.

            Yet, despite their obvious similarities in to prolificacy, skill and impact on Jazz, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington were two very different pianists. Ellington’s style is often characterized as smooth and melodic, probably caused, at least in part, by the skill and frequency at which he composed. (Pinkney, 30) In contrast, Thelonious Monk is known for his intense use of silence and for utilizing the entire keyboard. Still, with these clear differences, a comparison between the two is hard to make because of the differences in style: Ellington was the leader of a fairly large swing band, whilst Monk played at the forefront of the bebop era. However, each pianist cut a record with saxophonist John Coltrane in the late fifties or early sixties. Thus, by comparing a track from each pianist’s collaboration with Coltrane, Ellington and Coltrane’s In a Sentimental Mood (1962) and Monk and Coltrane’s Off Minor (1957), the contrasts in style are more readily apparent. As the two tracks display well, the most defined difference between the personal improvisational styles of Ellington and Monk was the different role of tension and resolve. 

As much as Monk helped usher in the bebop revolution, he also charted a new course for modern music few were willing to follow. Whereas most pianists of the bebop era played sparse chords in the left hand and emphasized fast, even eighth and sixteenth notes in the right hand, Monk combined an active right hand with an equally active left hand, fusing stride and angular rhythms that utilized the entire keyboard. And in an era when fast, dense, virtuosic solos were the order of the day, Monk was famous for his use of space and silence. On Off Minor, Monk displays both of these aspects of his improvisation.

            The cut opens as Monk introduces the lead melody of the song and Coltrane quickly joins him on the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins on the trumpet, Art Blakey on the drums (who brings very cymbal-oriented drumming to the track), Wilbur Ware on the bass, and a few other horns, (Ellington and Coltrane, In a Sentimental Mood) all who reiterate Monk’s introduction in the ABAB formed chorus. Coltrane and Hawkins then follow the main melody each with solos that precede Monk’s.

During the brass solos, Monks playing is fairly active for accompaniment, and it gets more so as the track moves on. At the beginning of Coltrane’s solo, Monk plays with lots of chords in a more standard supplementary fashion. Moving through Hawkins’ solo, however, Monk starts to improvise more and more beneath Hawkins, displaying a sort of excited impatience in Monk and causing a supreme sense of anticipation for the audience, almost as if Monk just can’t wait to get his turn!

Monk begins improvising on the second eighth note of the measure (syncopated, between the first and second quarter note beats), and from the beginning his solo plays with the audience in the most basic of musical fashions: tension vs. resolve. For the first few bars of his improvisation, Monk plays fairly evenly spaced syncopated eighth notes that give the beginning of his solo a pedestrian feel – similar to a quick walking bass line – and he uses no left hand chords at all. In doing so, he sets up the audience perfectly in anticipation for the beginning of his riff, partly because his audience knows just what he is capable of and partly because his syncopation and walking feel create a sense of tension after the rolling sounds of Coleman Hawkins. He then starts a new riff – on the first down beat of the tenth measure of his solo – with a light, high chord that leads into a dissonant, lower chord on the seventh eighth note of the measure. Throughout the rest of his improvisation, he plays about equally on both hands and maintains his trademark spaced-out phraseology. On this cut, the combination of all of the “classic Monk” techniques – nearly equal playing from both hands, the frequent and syncopated use of dissonance, seemingly sporadic spacing of notes – creates an incredible tension in his music that draws the listener closer and closer. Towards the very end of his solo, Monk returns to a riff off of the main melody temporarily, making the listener think that he’ll resolve all the tension that his calculated suddenness has created, but instead flares up with two more dissonant chords. The tensions are finally lifted when Coltrane, Hawkins and the other various, accessory horns revert to the playing the main melody monophonically.

            Ellington’s technique is a little different than that of Monk, as is evident in his famous 1962 cut with John Coltrane, In a Sentimental Mood. However, before any comparison may be made, it must be noted that though Monk’s Off Minor and Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood were cut within five years of each other, the two pianists hail from entirely different musical backgrounds – Monk a true bebop revolutionary nearly from the start of his career; Ellington a pioneer in the big swing band era. Thus, by the very nature of the style he was used to and played in, Ellington’s improvisations are much more settled and less tense. However, the difference in original playing style does not bar a comparison, as the two played with Coltrane during the same five year period.

            On In a Sentimental Mood, Ellington opens the track with what will become the basic piano structure and is followed closely by a beautifully crafted main melody played by Coltrane. After the chorus, Coltrane’s smooth, flowing saxophone fills the track with mournful, melancholic emotion. The duo then returns to the main melody, after which Ellington’s solo comes in, followed by Coltrane's second solo and the final chorus.

            As Coltrane plays the main melody, Ellington plays a chorus piano part heard throughout the song, a five note riff played across the first two quarter beats of a measure followed by lightly played chord tones in the left hand, that will later serve as the basis for his improvisation. During Coltrane’s solos, Ellington plays soft tones, only playing chords during spaces in Coltrane’s improvisation as to not interrupt or draw attention away from the saxophone.

            The beginning of Ellington’s solo marks a shift in the entire song. The drummer switches to a much more swing style beat, perhaps because Ellington is more comfortable with swing, and the bassist changes the notes that he is playing. Ellington begins the solo between the second and third beats with two distinctly minor chords, though not dissonant, followed by a string of syncopated eighth notes that drop back into the original, less minor key. This beginning sets his solo apart from the original melody, as a sort of deviation that will eventually return to the familiar riff. His technique clearly influenced by the stride pianists of ragtime and early blues, such as James P. Johnson and Willie Smith, Ellington moves casually up and down the keys, leaving little tension to be resolved and creating a flowing, emotional sound that carries the same sentiment as Coltrane’s mournful solos.

            As the solo moves on, Ellington uses his left hand only to back up his right hand’s new melodies and to introduce entirely new chord structures. He maintains relatively the same rhythmic structure to his improvisation – mostly syncopated eighth and quarter notes – which allows the listener to drift away in the passionate sounds. The solo ends as Ellington walks down the keys back to the original chords, ready to back up Coltrane in his second solo.

            There are many differences between the improvisational styles of Edward “Duke” Ellington and Thelonious Monk, but they can be consummated into one final disparity: as displayed in the contrast between Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood and Monk’s Off Minor, Ellington’s playing was smoother than Monk’s experiments with tension and resolution. As a composer, Duke tended to write new melodies over more standard chord progressions. (Pinkney, 32) In doing so, his improvisation was often more grounded and, therefore, less tense. Conversely, Monk created in his compositions whole new structures for his pieces where harmony and rhythm melded effortlessly across his new chord progressions and spontaneity and sporadic suddenness dominated his improvisation, rather than writing new melodic lines over popular chord progressions. (Lipman)

            Ellington’s improvisation on the piano frequently serves as a paradigm to his style of composing – he knew how to write music for people. Thus, his improvisation is calm and soothing, easy to listen to, because the fact is that as the former leader of a big swing band, he was used to writing music for people to dance to.

            Monk’s improvisational technique, in contrast, was inspired more by his fascination with dissonance and tension. Noting his different reasons for playing (unlike Ellington and other who played by profession for others), Monk once said of his style, "I say, play your own way. Don't play what the public wants--you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you're doing--even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years." (Lipman) Against the bebop velocity, Monk's retarding movement - his spaced-out phraseology - yields greater suddenness. He displays explosive rejoinders and mournful, yet jubilant tracery across the void. In fact, Monk is able to create so much anticipation that by not playing at some points, the listener is kept at high speed and made more conscious of the notes that Monk does play. Thus, bebop velocity is always implicit in Monk's playing, though almost never stated.

            Though Edward “Duke” Ellington and Thelonious Monk are known for two very different styles of jazz, big-band swing and bebop respectively, using the commonality that they both worked with John Coltrane during the same time period as a control group allows for a solid comparison of their two styles. The major difference between the two is easily characterized, and therefore easily noticeable in Off Minor and In a Sentimental Mood: Ellington’s improvisations flowed more smoothly, due to less use of dissonance and more fluid rhythms, whereas Monk’s solos are characterized by a constant shift between tension and resolution (though tension usually prevailed). 


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