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

Nov 26, 2017

Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were both born a century ago, in 1917. In their honor, here’s a heap of information about “‘Round Midnight,” a bedrock jazz standard whose evolution reflects their mutual regard.

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 title, which includes the song listed by the former title. 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 was issued.

Trumpeter Cootie Williams made the first recording of the song on Aug. 22, 1944. His band featured Monk’s good friend Bud Powell, along with trumpeter Joe Guy, who had worked with Monk at Minton’s. (It’s possible that Guy or Powell hipped Williams to the tune. Williams had already recorded Monk’s “Epistrophy” in 1942, with a band that also featured Guy.) 

Cootie Williams, photographed in New York City, between 1938 and 1948
Credit William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress

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. 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, at 2:39, 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 he was fascinated with: In February 1944, Coleman Hawkins, with Gillespie as sideman, recorded Dizzy’s “Woody ‘N’ You,” whose A sections are the very same sequence. In his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, Gillespie 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 version, filmed in concert:

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 (his fills are prominent throughout), 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 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.

Dizzy’s contributions to the song were clearly endorsed by Monk, and have remained in place ever since — not required, but as options for performers to consider. Miles Davis, whose early idol had been Dizzy, uses his arrangement on a Prestige session in 1953 (with both Bird and Sonny Rollins on tenor); on the 1956 Prestige version with John Coltrane; and on the better-known 1956 version for Columbia.

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 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 some depth, with music examples, on pages 25-28 and 81-84 of Barry Kernfeld’s book What to Listen for in Jazz.


Now, let’s look at the lyrics; there are several sets. Here is the beginning of the version credited to Bernie Hanighen:

It begins to tell,

‘Round midnight, midnight,

I do pretty well, till after sundown,

Suppertime I’m feelin’ sad;

But it really gets bad,

'Round midnight.

These words were used by Jackie Paris for the first vocal recording of the song in Nov. 1949:

The next version, also in Nov. 1949, was a solo recording by the French pianist Bernard Peiffer. (He later lived and taught in Philadelphia for years.) Over the next three years, there were recordings from South Africa, Sweden, and London; the song was on its way to being a jazz standard. And more lyricists came up with their own words for the song.

Jon Hendricks, who died last week at 96, wrote his own set of lyrics, incorporating the Gillespie arrangement. Carmen McRae liked to perform it with these words. On a version from her 1988 album Carmen Sings Monk, she first sings Hanighen’s lyric, then sings Hendricks’ lyric, which is where the clip below begins. (In addition to the main theme, he wrote lyrics for Gillespie’s introduction and ending.) 

Gillespie Intro:

A pale and lonely moon

Lights the sky in the dark

Before the dawn

I sit here in my room how I sigh

For the day that's come and gone

Another lonely day passes by

And a new day's coming on

At midnight



Tears I've shed today

Will pause waiting until tomorrow

Dreams of what could be come close to me


There's a brand new day in sight

At that time, ‘round midnight

You might know that Amy Winehouse recorded this song. But have you heard this version, which has yet a third set of lyrics? This alternate version was the B-side of Amy's single “Take The Box”:

First verse:

I lie down in a daze 'round midnight, 'round midnight

Maybe it's that blue haze

That makes me sleepy

Smoke snakes out of the roach at me

Cause 'round midnight I'm so easy

Second verse:

Everything is fine 'round midnight, 'round midnight

Me and rose wine, we are best friends

Then I remember he is gone

And so midnight goes along

Falsetto scat break

And so midnight goes along

It happened last May 'round midnight 'round midnight

I remember the day

He put me in my place

I can never forget his face


‘Cause midnight has its ways

Midnight has its ways

Midnight has its ways


In sum, “’Round Midnight” makes a fascinating case study in the collaborations that go into 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, including the interlude (and many of Monk’s voicings). The intro, interlude and ending comprise about two of the four pages — but there is no credit to Gillespie.

This is not to imply that Dizzy would have expected a credit. As musicologist José Bowen noted 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 Bowen’s 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 notable recordings of it as possible, especially any by the composer — and where there are differences, 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 Duke 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, even the famously ethical 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 — more on that in a later post.)

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