This Black History Month, we would like to take a moment to reflect on and celebrate the invaluable contribution of two of the most important musicians of the twentieth century to the music genre we all love – Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles – whose work NYJO is currently, or about, to tour for audiences around the UK.
To the lives and struggle of African American artists and the African diaspora we owe an unpayable debt, musically, culturally, and far beyond. Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles are here highlighted as two of the genre-bending fathers of our contemporary musical landscape, without whom jazz as we know it today would certainly not exist.
Here are Monk and Charles, in the words of the two guest artists working with NYJO on these special projects, Tony Kofi and Tommy Blaize:
One of the pioneers of modern jazz, Thelonious Monk needs no introduction. His endless creativity and unique style of composition and improvisation would change the course of jazz history forever. Monk is not only one of the most prolific and influential jazz composers to ever live, but also regarded as the father of bebop, whose sound would inspire music makers to this day.
As one of the most recorded artists of all time, Monk made plentiful contributions to the standards canon, with works like ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Round Midnight’, and ‘Blue Monk’. His seminal 1959 large ensemble recoding, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall remains one of his most challenging and critically acclaimed works, elevating him from a fringe musical maverick into one of the leading figures of the jazz scene worldwide.
Thelonious Monk by Tony Kofi
When you hear the music of Thelonious Monk, you can hear the direct lineage from the iconic musicians who inspired his own style, Scott Joplin, James P Johnson through to Duke Ellington and then through to his own personal style with his personal sense of rhythm in which only few could understand or play, and clusters of notes which sounded dissonant by his percussive unorthodox flat fingered style, where you can also hear the culture of African, Caribbean and European influences.
Monk’s music is an institution in itself, creating opportunities for people to improve and develop their own musicality. A music which was so far ahead of it’s time that we’re only beginning to understand and appreciate the real genius of Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Read more about our current tour – Tony Kofi & NYJO Present: The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall
Born in a Georgia in 1930, Ray Charles would become one of the most recognisable and celebrated singer-songwriters in the world. His unique combination of gospel, jazz, and R&B won him the nickname ‘The Genius’, but he was mostly referred to as ‘Brother Ray’. Charles’ wildly popular hits like ‘Hit The Road Jack’, ‘What I’d Say’ and ‘I’ve Got A Woman’, to name but a few, helped create space for “gospel-infused” sounds in pop music, contributing to the wide dissemination of Black music and culture to a broader audience.
Charles was also an important political figure during the American Civil Rights movement, lending his sway as a public figure and influential artist to the cause for an end to racial discrimination. His refusal to perform at racially segregated venues would result in a lifetime ban from his home state; but Charles was nonetheless vindicated when his version of ‘Georgia on My Mind’ became the state’s official anthem.
Ray Charles by Tommy Blaize
To me Ray Charles is without question one of the greatest artists in history. There’s something very special about the way he effortlessly crosses so many styles of music – from R’n’B to soul to jazz, gospel to pop – and his genius in being able to sell a song without defining himself in any one genre.
Read more about our upcoming tour – Tommy Blaize & NYJO Present: The Music of Ray Charles