New American Songbook: Keep Your Ears Open

Nov 7, 2016

The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk is instantly recognizable from tunes like ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Round Midnight’. But one of his most heard recordings isn’t one of his own tunes, and it isn’t even the whole song. 

Here it is:

[listen to audio link above to hear]

That’s Monk, playing Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’. It’s a great tune, but what we’re really interested in is only about ten seconds of this clip, and we’ll take those ten seconds in two five second chunks. Here’s the first:

[listen to audio link above to hear]

And here’s the second:

[listen to audio link above to hear]

These two clips comprise the melodic layer of a track on the first Wu-Tang Clan album, we’ll shorten the title to ‘Shame’ to keep this commentary clean. There are a lot of critical layers that we could explore in an academic way, but after listening to ‘Black and Tan’ as a surprise song in the middle of a playlist, what struck me was how much I’ve always enjoyed the process of discovering music in this way. Because this is how I first heard this Monk tune, through Wu Tang—and hip hop is how I’ve heard a good number of other songs and music.

These days, we call these moments Easter eggs’, a term I like for the evocation of childhood, but it feels saccharine and corporate. The serious play of hip hop discovery is more like when Mos Def says ‘this thing called rhymin’ no different than coal minin’/we each on assignment to unearth the diamonds’. Hip hop consistently rewards the curious listener with a musical experience that transcends genre and even time. You just have to keep your ears open.