Keyed up for a jazz classic

Celebrated composers put their own stamp on Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight Variations'

In music, the theme-and-variations format is as old as the hills, but sometimes it can seem fresh and new again.

Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight Variations" is one example.

Twenty years have passed since the death of the jazz composing genius and eccentric, and to celebrate, Italian-born pianist Emanuele Arciuli has asked 20 composers - including Milton Babbitt, William Bolcom, John Harbison, and Aaron Jay Kernis - to write variations on one of Monk's most renowned jazz themes.

The homage to Monk will be performed at Columbia University's Miller Theatre in New York on Nov. 14 (see, and it will also feature the world première of a new work by distinguished American composer George Crumb.

Arciuli, who divides his time between performing and teaching at the State Conservatory of Bari, Italy, and at the University of Cincinnati, says he chose "Round Midnight" as the theme because "it's typically American, ... and it's very difficult to write variations to because of its complexity."

Even so, all of the composers leapt to the challenge, albeit for different reasons. In homage to Monk, Crumb called his suite of nine pieces "Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik" ("A Little Midnight Music").

"I fell in love with Monk's little tune with its bewitching melodic curve and its poignant, almost Chopinesque harmonics and quote fragments," Crumb says. "I hope that some of the fey magic of Monk spills over into my overall conception."

Arciuli says he loves all the variations that were produced. "Each piece is different from the others, so I have to change myself, like a chameleon, which is the most exciting part."

Constant change was an implicit part of Monk's own artistry, which can be heard on a series of reissues from Sony Legacy (C2K 63905, CK 63536, CK 85812, CK 86564).

Legendary soprano sax player Steve Lacy, a Monk colleague, says, "I've played [the song 'Round Midnight'] with Monk a number of times, and each time it was always variations. Monk told me he wrote it when he was 18, and that song alone paid for the education of his kids."

Acclaimed young composer Aaron Jay Kernis was attracted by other reasons than the song's educational payoff. He describes Monk as the most original keyboard artist and jazz composer.

"[From] a style seemingly born out of quirks and awkwardnesses," says Kernis, "he created a voice of great flexibility and refinement.

"One of the hard things about doing a variation for this project was to try to capture the rough edges of his playing and the things that most captivate me in his playing."

Milton Babbitt, whose music has been strongly inspired by jazz, is the only one to admit active dislike of the original.

"I thought it was a dreadful song and Monk amused me and I regarded him as rather eccentric," says Babbitt, a fixture at Princeton University and Juilliard. "Among jazz pianists, I was closer to Teddy Wilson and Mel Powell. I found it a daunting challenge and I played with it, and ultimately found it amusing."

As did the pianist Arciuli, who says of Babbitt's creation, "It seems to be very far from the original, because it has no theme, no melody. But it's a journey 'inside' Monk's [style]."

Two jazz composers, pianists Eric Reed and Fred Hersch, also contributed to the project, bringing with them the most overt respect for the original material.

An African-American pianist who often records with star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Reed casts aside the later image of Monk as a tragic figure whose eccentricities led to mental illness and artistic sterility.

Instead, Reed praises "Round Midnight" as a tune he plays at every single concert he gives.

"It's not only just a beautiful song but is constructed in an unusual way, not like your typical ballad with a cute little melody and a variation."

Hersch, a longtime teacher at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, will release a new album in January that will include performances of Monk's music at Manhattan's Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records).

"In Monk's many recorded performances of 'Round Midnight,' I hear a dark, stark, almost sinister quality," says Hersch. "My variation is more gentle, but hopefully it evokes a late-night feeling, hence its title 'Little Midnight Nocturne.' "

Reed, a devout Monk worshiper, captures the dual classical-jazz nature of the event by conjuring up two ideal colleagues, Beethoven and jazz pianist Art Tatum.

"Beethoven is similar to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the way he connects past to the future. He had a strong sense of tradition and a futuristic point of view - as did Monk, too. And Art Tatum in his later period, 1955-56.... It would have been fascinating to have heard what he did with Monk's harmonies."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.