Thelonious Monk’s beautiful ballad “Round Midnight” is said to be the most widely recorded and performed jazz tune — that is, a tune that was written specifically for jazz, not an adaptation of a showtune or pop song. It’s a testament to its popularity that it’s one of exactly two songs that Dave Chappelle knows how to play on the piano. There are a couple of scenes in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that show him noodling around it. He talks in this clip about what Monk’s music means to him as a comedian — it’s all about timing.
Carmen McRae was a good friend of Monk’s, and for my tastes, she sings this song better than anyone. Her tart, unsentimental intellect matches Monk’s own approach to music perfectly. Here she is performing “Round Midnight” in 1962.
Monk wrote his biggest hit back in the late 1930s, but he didn’t have a recording contract at the time and couldn’t get anyone else interested. A few years later, however, his luck changed. His friend Bud Powell was playing piano in a band led by former Ellington Orchestra trumpet star Cootie Williams. Powell convinced Williams to record “Round Midnight” in 1944.
The record made an impact, and “Round Midnight” became Cootie Williams’ theme song. Other musicians became interested in the tune as well. Dizzy Gillespie did a recording in 1947, for which he wrote his own distinctive intro and ending.
Monk himself liked Dizzy’s intro and ending so much that he promptly began including them in his own performances of his tune.
Then, later in 1947, Monk finally got to record his tune for the first time.
Much as I love Monk’s own playing, this recording is an awkward one, with a lame-sounding film noir arrangement in the horns. Fortunately, Monk recorded “Round Midnight” many more times over the course of his life. He tended to play it quite a bit faster and more abstractly than other interpreters. Here’s a live version from sometime in the sixties.
The definitive version of “Round Midnight” is the one by Miles Davis, as recorded on his 1957 album ‘Round About Midnight (a widely used alternate name for the tune.)
Miles honed this arrangement in performances for years before finally recording it. He plays Dizzy’s intro on muted trumpet, in a severely stripped-down form. His take on the melody is similarly minimalist, using many fewer notes than the original. At the end of the head at 2:40, Miles inserts a whole new section of his own invention, a shout chorus that jumps unexpectedly into major tonality, played on unmuted trumpet. The shout chorus sets up John Coltrane’s assertive and energetic tenor sax solo. Then Miles brings the mood back down with his muted take on Dizzy’s ending. This recording was a jukebox hit in black neighborhoods, and it went a long way toward cementing Miles’ iconic status in the jazz world. If you had to explain jazz to a visitor from outer space, you could do worse than this recording.
Every jazz singer has attempted “Round Midnight” at one point or another. To pick one of many great versions, here’s Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by Oscar Peterson.
As do most singers, Ella omits the intro and ending. The most complete vocal version, and maybe the most beautiful, is by Carmen McRae again, from her highly recommended 1988 album Carmen Sings Monk.
Everything’s here: all the sections, with the melody as written and also as interpreted by Dizzy Gillespie, all with lyrics. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the last word on “Round Midnight” — at least until the next evolution.
Hip-hop might point the way forward. The intro to Luchi De Jesus‘ recording of “Round Midnight” is sampled in “A Friend” by KRS-One.
Want to try playing “Round Midnight” yourself? It’s well worth it, you’ll learn a lot about music that way. The problem is finding a decent chart. Be warned that some of the chords in the infamous Real Book version are wrong, and it also omits Dizzy’s intro and ending. A more accurate transcription can be found in Hal Leonard’s lovingly rendered Thelonious Monk Fake Book, but that chart also leaves out the intro and ending. When I did the tune with my former jazz group, I decided to just transcribe the missing sections myself. Feel free to download my chart here.
Any crucial versions I missed? Leave them in the comments.