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Thelonious Monk Documentary To Show At Normal Theater

Straight No Chaser – The Thelonious Monk Story cover
Straight No Chaser – The Thelonious Monk Story cover";

Illinois Wesleyan University jazz studies director Glenn Wilson says rare concert footage is a major reason the Thelonious Monk documentary is "a must watch."

“There’s quite a bit of music footage,” said Wilson. “Which is really interesting because there is stuff in there that’s never been seen before.”

Wilson's nonprofit Further Jazz received a Town of Normal Harmon Arts Grant and a grant from the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation to produce six concerts preceded by a Wilson-selected jazz movie. The first film in this year’s “Jazz On Screen Series” is "Straight No Chaser – The Thelonious Monk Story." It will show at the Normal Theater on Friday, Aug. 17.

"There is stuff in there that%u2019s never been seen before."

Another reason to take in the documentary? Monk’s historical importance. Wilson said Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were the two players at the forefront of what would become the jazz be-bop sound.

“The other pianist at that time was the fleet of fingered Bud Powell. He was so fast on the piano, which was the opposite of Monk, who plays very deliberately. Monk wasn’t afraid to play minor seconds and dissonances on the piano. People said he could make any piano out of tune,” laughed Wilson.

The movie has been well received by viewers and critics. Wilson said even people who don’t think they like jazz or know who Monk is will take something away from the film.

“His story is quite interesting in that he suffered from some mental illness,” said Wilson. “Some people thought he was bipolar, and at times he would get up in the middle of a song and twirl around and dance and leave the musicians to play by themselves. That was pretty common.”

Another interesting aspect of Monk’s life and career was his relationship with Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was born into the wealthy Rothschild family. She became a jazz patron and writer, and a leading patron of bebop music. Among her beneficiaries were Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. De Koenigswarter also enjoyed hosting jam sessions in her hotel suite, which jogged Wilson’s memory of the time he participated in one.

"Paul Jeffrey was a saxophonist who played with Monk,” said Wilson. “I was in a big band with Jeffrey. So we took the band over to the baroness’s house (in New Jersey). We set up in the living room while Monk was in the other room. So we played this whole concert knowing Monk was sitting in the next room but we never saw him. He never came out.”

What a great story.

“Paul went in at the end to talk with him. He came out and said, ‘Monk dug it,’” chuckled Wilson at the memory.  

Following the 7 p.m. showing of "Straight No Chaser," Wilson and guests Chip Stephens (piano), Matt Hughes (bass) and Ricardo Flores (drums) will play Monk songs in the Normal Theater. Tickets are $7 for general admission, $5 for students.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.