Round Midnight

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.

Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie

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.

Monk’s best recordings of the tune were solo piano versions. My favorite is the one on The Composer, which sadly isn’t available on YouTube. The one on Thelonious Himself is good too.

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.

8 thoughts on “Round Midnight

  1. Cool stuff here.

    I didn’t know until TONIGHT that Dizzy and Parker recorded a version together live on a radio broadcast! Wow.

    McRae’s version from the ’60s, with the completely different set of poetic lyrics, is my favorite. The lyrics and delivery are knockout.

    Ella’s version from Montreux ’75 is, I think, by far her best.

    Maynard Ferguson did a good one–there’s a great live clip out there from around 1960.

    My favorite instrumental is James Carter’s on bari sax, backed by just Craig Taborn on piano. Has all the throaty, late-night, smoke-filled drama I ever wanted out of the song. Watch for the circular breathing at the top of his solo.

  2. Ethan, I can’t thank you enough for posting this! It was so informative and it was very generous of you to share your transcription. I was starting to get frustrated at the prospect of never finding the intro and ending to this piece. I’m very excited to dig into this! I’ll be sharing this post a lot! :)

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  4. Thank you for this post.  I like the changes on your chart although I’m not sure what recording you got them from.  I transcribed the ones I learned off of a Monk solo record.  Their a little more basic.  I almost always cringe whenever someone calls Round Midnight on a session.  Too many people play the terrible Old Real book changes…  Anyways, cheers from K.C.  

    Here’s a version I recently uploaded to YouTube:


    • My changes come from the Hal Leonard Monk book, except for the intro and ending, which I transcribed myself with help from my guitar teacher.

  5. Thank you for posting this, Ethan. I’m learning this tune for a jazz vocal workshop, and though I’m now even more scared of trying to tackle this, it’s great to have the history of the song, along with several great performances of it available in one place. Ella has been my favorite singer for a long time, and I’m just now discovering Carmen McRae. I have a lot of work ahead of me! Thanks again!

    • Glad you found it helpful. Have no fear! Listen to all the versions, absorb them and forget them. Sing it like yourself, and like you mean it, and I’m sure you’ll sound swell.

      Carmen McRae’s Monk album is a must-listen. It’s wonderful to hear someone singing not-so-well-known tunes like “Ask Me Now” and “Ugly Beauty,” especially when it’s Carmen.

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