Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] DeVeaux, Scott. “‘Nice Work if You Can Get It’: Thelonious Monk and Popular Song.” Black Music Research Journal 19 (Autumn 1999): 169-86.

Although Thelonious Monk is primarily recognized for his original compositions, a look at his engagement with popular song can yield insight into his musical development during the early 1940s. It was during this time that Monk composed many of his later-recorded originals, and yet as a house pianist at Minton’s, Monk probably spent much of his time playing with other soloists on standard tunes. Monk’s application of idiosyncratic dissonances and tritone substitutions to songs as familiar as Lulu’s Back in Town and There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie go beyond parody or eccentricity. They also cannot be thought of strictly as a modernist revolt against the commercialism of Tin Pan Alley “tunesmiths.” Instead, Monk’s arrangements of standards, both in studio recordings and live performance, can be regarded as interpretations. As such, they expose the seeds of his compositional style and serve as an autobiographical inscription of his Tin Pan Alley roots.

Though it is possible that Monk developed his personal style of composition and then applied that style to standards, it is equally possible that he derives his harmonic style from his reshaping of standards, given that the standards he chose to perform and record often lend themselves to Monk’s preferred reharmonizations. This is the case in his 1971 performance of Gershwin’s Nice Work If You Can Get It, in which Monk aggressively foregrounds dissonances which were subtle in the original. In either case, it benefits our understanding of Monk as a composer to acknowledge his true affection for popular song (as opposed to a modernist revolt against it), and it is likely that this affection is common among other bebop artists as well.

Works: Thelonious Monk (performer): Lulu’s Back in Town [1959 version] (170), There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie [1959 version] (170), Tea for Two [1956 version] (170), Sweet Loraine [1941 version] (171-72), Nice Work if You Can Get It [1941, 1971 versions] (174-77), Ghost of a Chance [1957 version] (177-78), April in Paris [1957 version] (178-83); Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: Koko (172-73).

Sources: Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (text): Lulu’s Back in Town (170); Vincent Youmans (music) and Irving Caesar (text): Tea for Two (170); Cliff Burwell (music) and Mitchell Parish (text): Sweet Loraine (171-72); Ray Noble: Cherokee (172-73); George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin: Nice Work if You Can Get It (174-77); Victor Yang: (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance (177-78); Vernon Duke: April in Paris (179-81).

Index Classifications: 1900s, Jazz

Contributed by: Molly Covington

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Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
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