The quintessential image of the bop musician, and by extension, jazz musician - dark suit, strange hat, sunglasses - all of these stem from the at the time out-there look of one Thelonious Sphere Monk, bebop pianist extraordinaire.
Originally hailing from North Carolina, the Monk family relocated to New York City in the 1920s, putting him in the epicenter of jazz's finest as a young man in his 20s in the early to mid 1940s. Thelonious' father, Thelonious Sr, liked to play music and the younger Thelonious dabbled in the trumpet before deciding on the piano at the age of 9. A prodigy, he was playing "rent parties" and sitting in on the organ and piano in churches in his teens. He dropped out of high school to take on paying jobs with a travelling evangelist and faith healer. But his musical life truly began when he became the resident pianist at Minton's in the early 40s.
In Minton's nightclub - when gigging in after-hours "cutting competitions" after being the house pianist, he rubbed shoulders with the finest soloists of that time. In fact, Minton's would be the crucible of a new style called bebop - and Monk's strange, angular note choices and couture would come to be the calling cards of the new style. Monk had eavesdropped on piano lessons taught to other family members, and was eventually taken on by his sister's piano teacher, but was mostly self-taught. Films of Monk playing show him "swatting" at the keys, playing competently but with hand gestures and positions that would make a piano teacher flinch.
Monk never formally completed any kind of education: his high school years at Stuyvesant high school didn't end in him graduating, and his playing was a result of imitating siblings' lessons, working for a touring evangelist, and then as a working musician in New York City. He was invited to perform with the Coleman Hawkins quartet, and went from gigging house pianist to recording artist in the mid 40s. Monk also recorded as a bandleader for the first time for Blue Note records at the end of the 40s, and his professional success spurred him to get married and father two children.
In 1951 his career took a crippling turn when he was in a parked car that, when searched by New York City police, turned out to contain narcotics. Refusing to testify against the others in the car, the City revoked his cabaret card, making it illegal for him to perform anywhere that alcohol was served. As a result, Monk turned to composing, playing shows outside of New York City, and recording with Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. He also met and recorded with Miles Davis, who he didn't get along with professionally. Davis would later remark that rumors of physical and verbal altercations between the two of them were nothing other than rumors. Whereas Thelonious Monk loved music and would talk about it at length passionately, when others were playing dense compositions with lots of notes, he put things together minimally. He'd throw in bizarre notes or "strange" changes (now understood as part of bebop style) that would frustrate other players.
Monk was, for the most part, a very competent musician who left significant "spaces" in his work for others to shine, a rare generosity in an art form populated mostly by virtuosos. However, he did have the odd habit of standing up, dancing in a circle, and sitting down (in the middle of a song). He'd decide on the set list just before the show, making television appearances, where the presenter would want to write notes, do some research on the songs, etc. difficult. And whereas most pianists would tap their feet to keep time, his would tap, slide, shuffle, bounce, rock on the heel. As they would have said in the South, "that boy ain't right".
The question of whether Monk was mentally ill is open to some debate. Though a definitive diagnosis was never determined, he was treated for mental illness. Though being strange is in and of itself not evidence that there's something wrong with you, peeing yourself on stage, not recognising your own children, and episodes of mania and withdrawal clearly are.
In the mid 1950s he travelled to Europe, and met the well known patron of the jazz arts, the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who played an important role in the lives of many jazz musicians of the day. Having had his cabaret card finally restored in 1956 after some successful recordings on the Riverside label, he once again became a resident pianist, at the Five Spot cafe. A house band containing John Coltrane and others was assembled but never recorded due to contract issues - and when the residency was over, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis' sextet, and Monk was on the road to Baltimore, Maryland.
The police in Delaware, enroute to Maryland, searched the car containing the Baroness and Monk and found narcotics in her suitcases. Monk refused to answer any questions or cooperate with the police, so they beat him with a blackjack. The Baroness willingly "took the fall" for the event and spent some months in jail, but was released when the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the assault on Monk by the police and other lapses in procedure rendered the confessions "under duress" and therefore invalid.
The 1960s were good to Thelonious, professionally - he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. "Monk's Dream", released in 1963, was his best-selling work, and he finally had a stable line-up of musicians with which to record. Though he did put out a few albums, personally, he was beginning to deteriorate. The unspecified, unknown medical condition that caused his erratic and unusual behaviour worsened. Whether it was worsened by blows to the head in the Delaware incident, or by malpractice is unknown. Doctors wanted to try electroshock therapy to fix whatever was wrong with Thelonious, but the family were against it, so they tried a variety of medications, which were new at the time. One is on record, having reviewed the old charts, that some of the medications given could have caused brain damage.
When the 1970s rolled around, Monk had almost stopped playing entirely. In fragile health, he almost never spoke, had difficulty recognising people and was unwilling to interact with them. Retreating to the New Jersey home of his friend and patron the Baroness, he stayed, nursed by the Baroness until his death (just as she had done for Charlie Parker), until a stroke ended his life in 1982. Though there had been a piano in the room, Monk hadn't touched it.
There are official and unofficial posthumous accolades for Thelonious Sphere Monk: there's the "Brother Thelonious" beer, with the label depicting the man in a monk's cowl and habit. There was the Lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1993, and a Pulitzer Prize citation in 2006. There is a Thelonious Monk institute of jazz, complete with college, high school and elementary programs in jazz, including a two-year college scholarship program to Loyola University in New Orleans to study with the best in the world. Monk's son, also named Thelonious, is a jazz musician, a drummer of some renown.