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January 01, 2009

"Round Midnight" - Part I

By: Bernard Chazelle

I know I should be out there slaying the flame-breathing dragons of evil, but that'll have to wait till Jan 2. I have to deal with a more pressing matter right now, which is to indulge myself with my favorite jazz tune of all time.

The most recorded jazz standard and one of the most beautiful, haunting ballads ever composed, Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight is easy to play decently but hard to play right. It took Miles Davis years of hard work to master it, and, till the end, Monk himself rarely missed a chance to make him feel inadequate. In one recorded version, Miles screws up the intro -- intentionally, rumor has it, as retaliation for Monk's putdowns. Miles was always intimidated by Monk (and by Bird, too, but he idolized Bird). In a famous recording session, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane get so confused about Monk's music they turn to him for help. Monk brushes them off: "Aren't you the great Coleman Hawkins? Aren't you the great John Coltrane? Then, if you're so great, you should be able to figure it out on your own." Monk was tough and uncompromising. But he was also a generous soul, who would actually spend hours "explaining" his music to his friends. If Bird was Beethoven, a born improviser, then Monk was Chopin. Notes were god-ordained to be somewhere and reordering them at Improv Time was only asking for trouble. He didn't think too highly of musicians improvising over his lines: "I wrote the perfect sequence of notes; why in the world would you want to play anything else?" (Advice he didn't apply to himself, of course.)

Thelonious Monk was one of the founding fathers of bebop, but he parted ways with the boppers eventually, accusing them of favoring virtuosity (the "externals") over depth and structure (the "internals"). He was the most original member of the group. While Bird's and Dizzy's innovations, dazzling as they were, have a historical logic to them, Monk is more of a musicological mystery -- as though he fell from a different planet. (An asteroid is named after him, so maybe that's what happened.) To say that Monk was a quirky guy is an understatement. He'd go days without saying a single word to anyone. Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk all spent time in mental institutions, but I'd blame the drugs they inflicted on their bodies before any talk of mad genius.

That the end of Monk's life was not a hellish descent into the abyss can be attributed to the miraculous kindness of the patron (matron?) saint of bebop, the one and only Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, in whose Jersey home Monk spent the last years of his life.

Charlie Rouse's solo is very beautiful, I think -- tender, bluesy, poignant. It must be the dream of every composer to write something as perfect as Round Midnight. In Part II, I'll write about some of the technical genius embedded in that piece. This will be, I promise, the most stultifyingly boring piece ever posted at ATR. (Or your money back!)

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at January 1, 2009 05:52 PM

I love to see you posting on Jazz again Bernard. Round Midnight is one of the few songs that actually fit the words “haunting melody” corny as that sounds but a lovely composition it is. In fairness to Trane, Hawkins, and Miles ballads are extremely difficult to improvise on without putting the audience to sleep. The pace is slow and the chords often come four to a bar. And Round Midnight is no exception and in a difficult key to boot. In fact asking an inexperienced player to play a ballad in front of an audience is courting trouble, definitely not for the faint of heart or the audience for that matter. Some musicians argue that a ballad should only be played with one chorus or once through the tune which presents the musician with a conundrum if you agree with the one chorus idea. Should you play it exactly as written? But that goes against the idea of changing the tune slightly as you play it which is standard practice for Jazz. Some musicians will play only the first few bars, and not even then as written, followed by going into improv mode where it is commons practice to use double time to work around the slow pace of the ballad. Others might adlib the melody the whole way through. But then most Jazz musicians consider it bad form to play any song exactly the same way twice. Often an arrangement of playing the melody at the slow tempo is utilized but for the improv chorus to go into a swing tempo at twice the original speed returning to the original slow tempo for the last melody chorus. However one approaches a ballad it is always a challenge for the musicians. I suppose some may believe that ballads are easy because of the slow tempos but the opposite is actually true.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 1, 2009 07:18 PM

Rob: Any favorite ballad instrumentalist?

Ben Webster? Dexter Gordon? Clifford Brown? Trane? Naima. Oh, what a ballad! Or Bird on Embraceable You! Gorgeous.

Did you see Freddie H died!!?? Man, that hurts...

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 1, 2009 09:22 PM


All those you mentioned are favorites, Trane did an album that was all ballads that was beautiful and I saw Dexter Gordon do a fantastic Body and Soul live. Even Sonny Stitt known more for his technique than playing a ballad can do a ballad to make you green with envy. Paul Desmond who wrote the gorgeous Wendy comes to mind as well, it just shimmers with beauty. So I guess I don’t have an absolute favorite and I would be hard put to name one. No, I didn’t know Freddie Hubbard died what a great musician he was as well. What a sad world it is without these people who provided us with moments of pure magic amidst all the ugliness of life.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 1, 2009 09:54 PM

As always, I have to plead ignorance about names of some musicians and specific pieces of music but I learn a lot from these posts and enjoy the great music posted. Many thanks Prof Chazelle. YOUR comment led me to "search" and I do not recognise the music but it is beautiful!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 1, 2009 10:04 PM

My daughters have played the piano for a couple of year, but this year in school one started playing alto saxophone and the other started playing the clarinet. In the last few days, I've had the joy of teaching them Monk's Rhythm-a-ning. I'd play it on the piano, and they would try to play along. I told them about how Monk would require his sidemen to learn his music by ear and bring out the written music only as a last resort. We're not Monk, Coltrane, and Charlie Rouse, but we're having a lot of fun.

Posted by: ChrisR at January 2, 2009 12:53 AM

>> We're not Monk, Coltrane, and Charlie Rouse, but we're having a lot of fun.

Exactly! That's what it's all about. Lucky daughters to have a parent like you.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 2, 2009 01:08 AM


I almost forgot but I put up a website and though I never finished the site it has a lot of good information on learning to play Jazz. I have no idea what your goals are but you can take whatever information from it that you might find helpful. Here is the link.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 3, 2009 12:50 AM

Another great music post. Thanks.

Posted by: Guest at January 3, 2009 02:10 AM

Monique, a Leaf fan, originate this absolutely well-defined to believe. Now, let me core out that this was in no way an try to glory one together is raise than the other. It was objective a regarding to official two things.

Posted by: picsyx at January 5, 2009 10:35 AM

Thanks, Bernard. I consider myself the lucky one.

Thanks for the website, Rob. I'm not a jazz musician by any means, but I enjoy reading about jazz and trying out some ideas. I scanned the lessons, and they look interesting because, as you wrote, they aren't typically found in books.

Posted by: ChrisR at January 5, 2009 02:22 PM