The brilliant pianist Mary Lou Williams, seven years Monk’s senior and working at the time for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy orchestra, heard Monk play at a late-night jam session in Kansas City in 1935. Monk, born in 1917, would have been 18 or so at the time. When not playing to the faithful, he sought out the musical action in centers like Kansas City. Williams would later claim that even as a teenager, Monk “really used to blow on piano. . . . He was one of the original modernists all right, playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he’s playing now.”
It was those harmonies — with their radical, often dissonant chord voicings, along with the complex rhythms, “misplaced” accents, startling shifts in dynamics, hesitations and silences — that, even in embryonic form, Williams was hearing for the first time. It’s an angular, splintered sound, percussive in attack and asymmetrical, music that always manages to swing hard and respect the melody. Monk was big on melody.