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“Rhythm-a-Ning” (1957) by Thelonious Monk has a long and complicated history. Monk’s first recording that used this title was made in 1957 with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Mary Lou Williams used the initial A section (of an AABA 32-bar form) on the second chorus of her 1936 recording “Walking and Singing”. It was also claimed by Charlie Christian (as “Pagin’ Dr. Christian” or “Meet Dr. Christian”), Al Haig (as “Opus Caprice”) and Sonny Stitt (as “Symphony Hall Swing”). The title “Rhythm-a-Ning” refers to its formation based of chord changes of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Jon Hendricks later added lyrics and used “Listen to Monk” as the title.
As a child, Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) could play anything he heard; as a teenager he played organ for a traveling evangelist. By the early 1940s he was the house pianist for Minton’s Playhouse, where he significantly contributed to the creation of be-bop. Mary Lou Williams, a mentor during the Minton’s period, spoke of his rich inventiveness and lack of credit, saying others tried to copy his style, complete with beret and sunglasses. Monk’s first studio recordings were made in 1944 with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. From there he went on to form his own groups, consistently creating intricate works that many musicians found difficult to perform. In 1951 drugs were found in his car; though not his, he refused to testify against anyone else, which resulted in the loss of his cabaret license for seven years, during which time he focused on recording. Monk was second only to Duke Ellington in the number of his compositions recorded. He was one of just five jazz musicians on the cover of Time magazine; the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was founded by his family in his memory.