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Still Falling for Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight

Credit: William P. Gottlieb
Thelonious Monk, 1947

A romantic ballad launched one career, revived another, and became a beloved standard for generations of musicians. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on Thelonious Monk's " ‘Round Midnight." The work was recorded first in 1944—but not by Monk.

Radio script: 

MUSIC: " 'Round Midnight," Cootie Williams, 1944 (melody on trumpet )

Susan Lewis: Aside from limited engagements at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem,  the young pianist Thelonious Monk was playing mostly short-term gigs. In 1943, he began romancing his future wife, Nellie Smith, and registered for copyright a song called, "I Need You So." The next year, the Cootie Williams Orchestra recorded the ballad; but by then, Monk had dropped the original lyrics and now called it 'Round Midnight.


MUSIC: " 'Round Midnight,"  Thelonious Monk, 1947 (melody on piano)

SL: Monk himself recorded it in 1947, but other artists embraced it as well. Miles Davis’s performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival jump-started his career. Davis wrote that when he played Monk’s tune, "everybody went crazy... people were running up to me, offering me record deals.”


In a few months, Davis recorded his album, called 'Round About Midnight.

'Round Midnight...is often cited as the most recorded standard by a jazz composer.

MUSIC: Miles Davis, 'Round Midnight from the album, 'Round About Midnight

SL: Among other greats interpreting the tune: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and...Ella.

MUSIC: Ella Fitzgerald, " 'Round Midnight,"  from the album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! 1962

SL: The melody transcends genres. In 2003, Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli commissioned classical composers to create 'Round Midnight variations.

MUSIC: Arciuli, 'Round Midnight variations, performed in 2003

SL: 'Round Midnight, featured in at least 18 recordings by Monk himself, and in over 100 made by others, is often cited as the most recorded standard by a jazz composer. 

More about 'Round Midnight: 

Biographer Robin Kelley (Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of An American Original) says the melody is from a love song Monk registered for copyright in 1943, with lyrics by a neighborhood friend, Thelma Elizabeth Murray.  According to Kelley, the words "could have easily referred to Monk's longing for Nellie [Smith]," who had spent a year away from New York.   

But then Monk dropped the lyrics, and changed the name to 'Round Midnight. When in 1944, Cootie Williams and his orchestra made the first recording, Williams took co-composer credit, hired lyricist Bennie Hannigan, and later made the tune his theme music.

Among those who have recorded the standard in the last 30 years: Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin, Amy Winehouse, Emanuele Arciuli, and Keith Jarrett. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.