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What Thelonious Monk's Most Famous Composition Owes to Dizzy Gillespie

Jim Marshall
Jim Marshall Photography LLC

Two of the founders of modern jazz, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, were born within two weeks of each other in 1917. In honor of their joint centennial, here’s a heap of info about Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” and the role that Dizzy played in shaping its arrangement.

It’s certainly Monk’s “greatest hit.” Monk’s son, drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk, likes to say that it’s “the most recorded song.” That’s not the case, but the song’s recordings are well up there: according to the index of Tom Lord’s master jazz discography, it’s been recorded 1,780 times to date! (Twenty-three of those were under the name “‘Round About Midnight,” of which more below.) And the number will continue to rise; 280 of those recordings were made since 2010.

The website Jazzstandards.com asserts that “‘Round Midnight” is the most recorded piece written by a jazz musician, and that might be true. But it wouldn’t come out on top if you include the blues, because “St. Louis Blues,” by W. C. Handy, has 2,169 entries. And it’s far from the most recorded song, period — it can’t compete with something like Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which has supposedly been recorded more than 30,000 times. (There’s no listing of these recordings, so we can’t verify the exact number.)

To start at the beginning, what’s the name of this song? You’ve seen it as “‘Round Midnight” and as “‘Round About Midnight.” Miles Davis has an album by the latter name, which includes the song listed by the former. According to Wikipedia, this has led some to mistakenly add the word “About.” But it appears that “‘Round About Midnight” is not a mistake, but rather a legitimate alternate title.

In his definitive Monk biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin D.G. Kelley notes that “About” was used when the piece was registered for copyright in 1944. Monk occasionally referred to it by that name (for example, in a French interview published in 1963). And I believe, though I haven’t seen the label, that “Around” was used on a Milt Jackson recording of the piece for Dee Gee (Dizzy Gillespie’s label) in 1951, six years before the Davis album.

Trumpeter Cootie Williams made the first recording of the song on Aug. 22, 1944, with Monk’s good friend Bud Powell as his band’s regular pianist, and Joe Guy, who worked with Monk at Minton’s, on trumpet. (Either Guy or Powell might have hipped Williams to the tune; Williams had already recorded “Epistrophy” in 1942, with Guy in the band.)

Williams continued to use a short version of “‘Round Midnight” as his band’s theme, both in performance and on the radio, through at least 1947. And as Kelley explains, Williams added an out-of-character, Hollywood-ish interlude for the song’s first recording in ‘44, justifying his co-composer credit.

The second recording of “‘Round Midnight” to be released to the public was made by Dizzy Gillespie in Feb. 1946. But we now know of two early versions of the song that were not previously recognized:

- Timme Rosenkrantz, a Danish jazz enthusiast who settled in New York City, recorded Monk performing solo piano versions of “’Round Midnight” and “These Foolish Things” in Nov. 1944. These recordings, made at Rosenkrantz’s midtown Manhattan apartment, can now be heard on the album Timme’s Treasures, from Storyville Records.

- Coleman Hawkins made the world’s first solo saxophone recordings for the Selmer saxophone company’s record label. The two sides of the 78rpm were simply titled “Hawk’s Variations,” Parts 1 and 2. The exact date is unknown, but these are usually given as “NYC, probably January 1945.” Part 1 is a fascinating and, I believe, “free” improvisation.

But Part 2 is not a continuation of side one; it’s a performance of “‘Round Midnight.”

Significantly, Norman Granz said that when he recorded the next solo saxophone performance, also at an unknown date but estimated to be anywhere between 1945 and 1948 (it wasn’t released until 1949), Hawkins first suggested that he play “‘Round Midnight.” But after a session working on that, he decided to produce a different improvisation, released as “Picasso.” Unfortunately, the “Midnight” session does not survive. (Incidentally, Brian Priestley, a pianist and one of the best jazz historians in the UK, hears “Picasso” as being based on “Prisoner of Love.”)

Meanwhile, in Jan. 1945, Dizzy Gillespie recorded his small-group arrangement of “I Can’t Get Started.” It had acquired the reputation of a trumpet feature: Bunny Berigan used it as his theme song, and Dizzy’s early idol Roy Eldridge recorded his own version. At the end of Dizzy’s take, around 2:35, he goes into an unexpected coda that you will probably recognize.

This coda was a sequence using ii half-diminished chords going to V sharp-nine chords, something Dizzy was fascinated with: In February 1944, Coleman Hawkins, with Gillespie as sideperson, recorded Dizzy’s “Woody ‘N’ You,” whose A sections are the very same sequence. In Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, he even talks about his fascination with half-diminished chords at that time.

Dizzy decided to use an extended version of this ending as a beginning for “‘Round Midnight” when he first recorded it with a small group in Feb. 1946. And he introduced a long coda section at the end.

In fact, leading his small groups years later, in 1962 and ‘63, Gillespie regularly performed a medley of “I Can’t Get Started” and “’Round Midnight,” specifically to highlight how his ending for the former became the intro for the latter. The two tunes are joined starting at 2:15 in this live version from the 1962 Antibes Jazz Festival.

By July 1946, when the first Gillespie big band was recorded privately at the Spotlite Club in Manhattan with Monk himself at the piano, other parts of his arrangement are in place (reportedly written out for the larger group by Gillespie’s friend Gil Fuller). Just after Monk’s short solo at 4:16, there is a double-time fanfare interlude from the band that remained a part of the piece, and a long coda at 6:15.

Monk’s own first commercial recording of “‘Round Midnight,” recorded for Blue Note in Nov. 1947, uses Gillespie’s intro but nothing else from that arrangement. But in later recordings, Monk often uses both the intro and the coda, even in solo piano renditions.

So it’s odd that one sometimes reads that the 1956 version was arranged by Gil Evans. That seems to have originated from an error on a 1973 LP, stating that the 1956 version had been featured Evans and his orchestra. Evans certainly had a close association with Miles, but the “‘Round Midnight” arrangement does not seem to have been a part of that.

The history of the “‘Round Midnight” arrangement is discussed in depth, with music examples, on pages 25-28 and 81-84 of Barry Kernfeld’s What to Listen For in Jazz.

A previously unreleased concert recording of Thelonious Monk from 1968 will be released next month as the album <em>Palo Alto</em>.
Larry Fink
Courtesy of the artist
Thelonious Monk in the 1960s.

So “‘Round Midnight” truly makes a fascinating case study in the collaborative process behind some jazz composition. My friend Philippe Baudoin, a professional pianist and one of the best jazz historians in France, tells me that the early published sheet music had a routine two-bar (pre-Gillespie) introduction, and no coda.

Stanley Cowell gave me the 1982 sheet music of the song, and the entire Gillespie arrangement is there, even the interlude, as well as many of Monk’s voicings, comprising about half of the four-page sheet music — without any credit to Gillespie.

But this is not to say that Dizzy would have expected a credit. As musicologist José Bowen wrote in a 1993 article, for “’Round Midnight” as for many jazz songs, there is no “original” or “definitive” version! (There are a few errors in his descriptions of the contributions of Williams, Gillespie, and Davis, but the article is valuable for its overall point and for reproducing the various sheet music and recorded versions.) When preparing to perform a jazz piece, I always listen to as many recordings by the composer as possible, and where there are differences, one has to make a personal decision based partly on taste.

Besides, “arrangements” per se cannot be copyrighted, at least not under existing law — no matter how different a version by, say, Gil Evans or Ellington is from the original. Furthermore, “intellectual property” was not as much of a concern 70 years ago as it is today. As I’ve shown in a previous Deep Dive, even the famously ethical John Coltrane appropriated pieces by others. (My research suggests, however, that it was often the record company, not the artist, who made the decision as to who got composer credit.)

In the end, ‘”Round Midnight,” while clearly Monk’s tune, is an illustration of the genius of both Monk and Gillespie —and of the collaborative nature of jazz itself.

Dr. Lewis Porter is the author of acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young and jazz history, and has taught at institutions like Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a pianist whose latest album, Transcendent, is a collaboration with guitarist Ray Suhy.