NEA Arts Magazine

Monk's Blues

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's Blues and Jazz Program

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Bobby Watson playing saxophone to a student class

Saxophonist BobbyWatson performing in Memphis during The Blues and Jazz tour by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Photo by The Commercial Appeal/Matthew Craig

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, located in Washington, DC, in 2007 began The Blues and Jazz program, which presents two-week educational tours for public school students. This past year, with NEA support, the program featured W. C. Handy Award-winning blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker, internationally renowned saxophonist Bobby Watson, and noted jazz vocalist Lisa Henry, who took the tour to Memphis, Kansas City, and Chicago, where they were joined by NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock. The NEA spoke with Thelonious S. Monk, Jr., chairman of the board of trustees of the Thelonious Monk Institute, about the program and the importance of these African-American musical styles.

NEA: Why present a program on blues and jazz to students?

THELONIOUS S. MONK, JR: Well, the relationship with blues and jazz actually goes to the heart of [American] history and American popular music. The majority of African American music was developed by African Americans basically on their own -- we start with the call-and-response in the slave fields and we move from that to gospel in the church, and of course the blues (blues people say the blues is really gospel with your head down). And what you have to look to -- beyond the actual technicality of music -- is the form itself, because the form of the blues, the original blues, is a very free form, and that form influenced all the other music. And when you take the harmonic and the melodic influences of the blues, and combine them with European classical music, you end up with things like jazz, without a doubt. Jazz came directly out of the blues and ultimately gave us rhythm and blues, funk, hip hop, all of which is pop music.

NEA: How did students react to these performances and educational activities?

MONK: Yelling and screaming. Seriously. Standing ovations everywhere. We've been fortunate to have Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart and Joe Louis Walker, and the kids' response to these major blues names was immense.

Just like jazz has become recognized as a serious art form of the country, there's no doubt that the blues need to occupy the same place. Americans tend to marginalize our own creative efforts. When you have an art form like the blues or jazz, which has impacted the entire planet, it needs to be taught. Right now, kids 20 and younger are very deficient when it comes to their musical history. Yet our music infuences everybody. When you look at the earliest interviews with Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, they'll say their influences were the blues. Our job has been to frame it in a fashion so the average American can understand it.

When I see a young player get involved in jazz and the blues, their minds explode musically. You can do something that impacts on the lives of young people, and that's what really matters.