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Jazz Giant Thelonious Monk of Rocky Mount

Monk plays the piano in September 1947. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.On October 10, 1917, Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount. Though Monk lived most of his life in Manhattan, his North Carolina roots ran deep.

Monk’s style was original and unorthodox, incorporating elements of stride piano and gospel to create a “rhythmic virtuosity,” striking dissonant notes and playing skewed melodies. He collaborated with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and many other noted jazz musicians of the time. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, another of his collaborators, Monk is credited as an architect of bebop; The third composition he copyrighted, and his first as sole composer, was also his best-known, “’Round Midnight.”

Personally, Monk had a reputation as the ultimate hipster, with his goatee, skullcap and bamboo-rimmed sunglasses. He often left his keyboard to dance while onstage and, at random moments, on the street or in public spaces, would twirl for several minutes. Viewed by some as temperamental and eccentric, he is described by his biographer Robin Kelley as essentially rebellious. Kelley documented that Monk suffered from bipolar disorder most of his adult life.

In 1972, Monk withdrew from public appearances and was hospitalized intermittently until his death. Among his last extended stands was a week at the Frog and Nightgown in Raleigh’s Cameron Village in 1970. A park in his hometown has carried his name since 2000.

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