THE word genius was thrown about as blithely as a frisbee a week or so ago when a benefit was staged at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. to establish the Thelonious Sphere Monk Center for Jazz Studies. The conductor and composer David Amram declared Monk's music ``on a par with Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bart'ok.'' The young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis simply said, ``He was The Man.''
A little exaggeration may be in order, because Thelonious Monk never quite collected his dues during his lifetime. He was to the piano what Dizzy Gillespie was to the trumpet, Charlie Parker to the saxophone, and Kenny Clarke to the drums -- the first generation of bebop. And more than any of them, perhaps, he worked out the chord progressions of the new sound that emerged from jam sessions at Minton's on New York's 118th Street in the 1940s. His compositions -- ``Round Midnight,'' ``Straight No Chaser'' -- remain classics of the genre.
Monk belonged to the considerable corps of jazz pianists built like truck drivers -- Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, ``Fats'' Waller, and Dave McKenna are other names that come to mind. One Monk-watcher said he covered the keyboard like a man trying to catch a trout with his bare hands. Certainly Monk was a sight to see. He swayed to his music, and on occasion leaped up from his bench to dance with ponderous grace. He dressed conservatively, but sported exotic headgear, indoors and out -- a Chinese skullcap, a fur hat, or a beret. It was Monk who invented the bop musician's standard regalia: beret and dark glasses.
A self-taught musician of less-than-virtuoso technique, Monk struck the keys with unbending fingers. Yet he could produce a light, tinkling sound, as if he had drawn up his bear-like body to a toy piano. Like Count Basie, whom he resembled in a few other ways, he said as much with the notes he left out as the notes he registered.
A Monk improvisation is a suspense story of pauses, of chords hovered over and -- at last -- played. This lends an intense lyricism to standards like ``Sweet and Lovely'' and ``I Should Care,'' or an irrepressible beat to his own compositions, like ``Misterioso'' and ``Monk's Point.'' One moment Monk can be as moody as a jazz piano gets, and the next moment he can be as bouncing as Erroll Garner, making even his blues sound happy.
Like his spiky chord progressions, Monk's mind works at angles. He stays surprisingly close to his melodies, then suddenly blows up the whole line. Music amuses him -- brings out his wit. He could do a lovely parody of ``Dinah,'' strumming away with an oompah left hand, and still figure out a way to slow it all down and end with a haunting chord that strikes the heart.
Monk had his ups and downs, but he never compromised his music -- ``play yourself'' was his motto. He kept his own time on and off the stand, catching as little sleep as possible, at odd moments and odd places, on the theory that sleeplessness keeps one alert.
His friends found him a sweet, charming, and curiously quiet eccentric, but a strong man. The pianist Bill Evans, who was hard to satisfy on the score of character, paid Monk his ultimate compliment: He was ``an exceptionally uncorrupted talent.''
Or as the man himself summed up: ``Jazz and freedom go hand in hand.'' You could inscribe that on the corner-stone of the Thelonious Sphere Monk Center.
Wednesday and Friday column