Monk, Thelonious (Sphere)(1917–82) jazz musician; born in Rocky Mount, N.C. He was raised in New York and received piano lessons at age 11. Two years later he accompanied his mother's singing at a local Baptist church and began playing piano at parties in Harlem. He led a trio at a neighborhood bar around 1934, then spent two years touring with an evangelist. He attended Juilliard briefly in the late 1930s and between 1939 and 1944 he worked as a sideman with Keg Purnell, Kenny Clarke, Lucky Millinder, and Kermit Scott. As one of the key innovators of modern jazz, he also appeared regularly in the early 1940s at Minton's Playhouse, Clark Monroe's, and other Harlem after-hours clubs and rehearsal sessions where the rudiments of the new style were being developed. He made his recording debut with Coleman Hawkins in 1944, appearing with the saxophonist's quintet for two years, then played with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra in 1946. He began leading his own group in 1947 in New York. For the next seven years he recorded for Blue Note and Prestige and was at the height of his creativity as a composer, but he remained an enigmatic, underground figure. In 1951 he was convicted for drug possession and deprived of his cabaret card, which precluded him from working in New York nightclubs for six years. He performed occasionally during this period, including an appearance at the Paris Jazz Fair in 1954, and continue to record as a leader and sideman. In 1957 he returned to New York club work with a celebrated engagement at the Five Spot Cafe featuring his new quartet with John Coltrane, and he appeared on CBS-TV's The Sound of Jazz that year. By 1961, when he formed a permanent quartet and began recording for Columbia Records, many of his compositions had become standards, among them "Round Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "Blue Monk," and "Ruby My Dear." He toured the U.S.A. continually throughout the 1960s, with first tours of Europe in 1961 and Japan in 1964. In that same year, he was featured in a Time magazine cover story, one of only five jazz musicians to have received such distinction. He accepted fewer engagements in the late 1960s, but toured internationally with the Giants of Jazz from 1971 to 1972. He made his last major public appearance at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival, and thereafter a combination of illness and voluntary inactivity kept him from performing.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.