John Beasley's MONK'estra Reinvents Thelonious Monk for the 21st Century

MONK'estra bandleader John Beasley
MONK'estra bandleader John Beasley
DL Media

Jazz pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader John Beasley began his career in the early 1980s, around the time jazz’s Young Men in Suits proclaimed that bebop was the one true way of life. They spoke solemnly about “keeping the flame,” “honoring the tradition” and other such homilies. Record companies, clubs and festivals got out their checkbooks and rewarded these young firebrands, many of whom would have been rated as just OK in the eras they sought to reconstitute.

While his contemporaries chased the past glories of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet, Beasley was playing piano in the short-lived band Thelonious, the Los Angeles Monk repertory outfit co-led by veteran bassist Buell Neidlinger and emerging tenor sax master Marty Krystall. But unlike the jacket-and-tie-clad bebop revivalists, Beasley wasn’t learning Monk’s greatest hits from his father’s Blue Note albums. The Thelonious band vibrantly dug into deeper titles in the Monk canon with contemporary zeal.

At 18 and 19, Beasley also worked with Monk’s 1960s bassist Larry Gales, who made his home in L.A. Gales passed along an appropriately opaque bit of Monkian wisdom to the young pianist: “Kid, ya gotta learn how to breathe when ya play.”

You couldn’t mistake the Thelonious version of “Little Rootie Tootie,” with Peter Erskine’s peppery eighth-note drum propulsion and Krystall’s upper-register multiphonics, for the dusty museum pieces routinely rendered on jazz festival stages. And Beasley has carried that spirit with him all these years.

“With Buell,” the 55-year-old Beasley recalls, “I had to learn a bunch of Monk tunes all at once. And they were all hard to play.”

Though most of the Monk numbers had been composed in the 1940s and ’50s, their idiosyncrasies made them avant-garde to Beasley. "I was listening to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s modal stuff,” he recalls, “but this was pre-modal jazz. The challenges were not only harmonic but rhythmic too.”

While he went on to play with Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, Beasley has shown his own flair for leadership. He’s been music director for Thelonious Monk Institute concerts, the Toyota Symphonies for Youth series at Disney Concert Hall, International Jazz Day (in Paris, Osaka, Istanbul and at the White House), and for A.R. Rahman (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) and Queen Latifah. He also guest-conducts European jazz big bands like the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, and he did the big band charts for Rihanna's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last weekend.

For the past three years, Beasley has piloted his MONK’estra 15-piece big band. Along with Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar’s activities, it’s one of the prime reasons L.A. is now considered a leading center of contemporary jazz.

Fresh from four nights at New York’s Jazz Standard club, Beasley and company celebrate MONK’estra Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue), their debut album, at Bluewhale in Little Tokyo on Thursday, Sept. 1.

MONK’estra was the unofficial hit of the Playboy Jazz Festival in June, and Beasley’s arranging skills competed with the firepower of the band’s blue-chip soloists for honors. “Evidence” employed a stop-time chart, while Beasley accelerated the band's tempo under alto saxophonist Danny Janklow’s blowtorch solo. They took evergreen ballad “’Round Midnight” as a slow jam, while trumpeter Dontae Winslow rapped a hip-hop narrative over the band that was personal yet centered on Monk. Another tune used a tuba-anchored second-line beat that suggested Big Sam’s Funky Nation meets Duke Ellington’s Jungle Band.

“John keeps you on the edge of your seat,” says trombonist Andy Martin, who played in an early version of MONK’estra. He had learned the Monk tunes by playing some of them in different form, as arranged by veteran bandleader Bill Holman. “Everything is spur-of-the-moment with John and you don’t know where it may lead.”

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Beasley writes the charts but he’s also looking for bandstand input from MONK’estra. “John’s writing and his personality in a big band context is the really cool part of this band,” says tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard. “He’s not concerned with the drill and precision of what’s on the page; he allows the music to morph.”

“Everybody in the band gets to be expressive at all times,” says Janklow. “In some big bands I feel excluded, but with John, there’s always something to keep it fresh — like clapping clave beats on ‘Skippy’ or dissonant chords over a vamp. That spontaneity makes it an intuitive experience.”

Beasley takes his cues for leading MONK'estra from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Gil Evans orchestras of the ’70s and ’80s. “Both of those bands had an almost unequaled excitement,” he marvels. “Thad could coax different things out of his band, and Gil would hold up fingers and change the direction of the piece right in the middle of the tune. I want to bring that excitement to the next generation.”

“All the people in the band are growing this thing together,” Janklow asserts. “It’s forward-moving and John takes suggestions from us. I’m always excited to play this music because it’s engaging and fun.”

So what is Beasley's goal with MONK’estra? He pauses a moment before stating: “I hope the audacity of Monk comes through, come what may; and I want to bring that to 21st-century audiences.”

John Beasley's MONK'estra performs at Bluewhale on Thursday, Sept. 1.  MONK'estra Vol. 1 is available now through Mack Avenue Records.

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