Thelonious Monk's jazz anthem 'Round Midnight and the pop standard These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) seem to have something in common. To be sure, they are completely different songs musically—'Round Midnight is in a minor key and These Foolish Things is in a major key, and their chord changes are different. But when you slow These Foolish Things to a crawl, the similarities in feel and how both progress are remarkably similar. It's my belief after a bit of research that one may have influenced the other.
Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight, of course, is the most recorded, best-loved and most easily identified jazz standard. These Foolish Things continues to be one of America's best-known pop standards. I had never even remotely equated the two songs until this weekend, when I found myself listening intently to Charlie Parker: The Washington Concerts for a writing project.
On that CD, Bird plays These Foolish Things, backed by a big band. Joe Timer's arrangement is taken slightly slower than the standard's usual mid-tempo pace. As I listened to Bird's take, I realized that the chart sounded eerily similar to Dizzy Gillespie's 'Round About Midnight from the 1948 Salle de Pleyel concert. Could it be? So I played Dizzy's version, and the feel and mood were very close. Then I played Bird's These Foolish Things again, this time humming 'Round Midnight over the top. It was a rough fit, but a fit just the same. Puzzling.
That's when it hit me: Could Monk have been consciously or subconsciously influenced by These Foolish Things when he wrote his ingenious jazz classic?
So I did a little digging. According to Thomas Fitterling in Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, a version of 'Round Midnight was likely written by Monk as early as 1936, under the title Grand Finale. In 1944, bandleader Cootie Williams wanted to record and publish the song. So he offered Monk a $300 advance. As part of the deal, Cootie asked for partial composing credit, which Monk handed over. Cootie [left] recorded the song in 1944 and used it as his theme. Monk recorded 'Round Midnight for the first time in 1947, for Blue Note.
So, 'Round Midnight, or some draft of it, dates back to 1936. Interestingly,These Foolish Things also was written in 1936, by Holt Marvell and Jack Strachey for an English revue. Given that Monk likely wrote a version of 'Round Midnight in 1936 and that These Foolish Things dates back to the same year, Monk would need to have heard the song if he was truly influenced by it.
I pulled out Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories (1890-1954): The History of American Popular Music. Five recordings of These Foolish Things were released in 1936. All were commercial hits. The two best-selling sides that year were Benny Goodman's (which hit No. 1) and Teddy Wilson's [pictured] with Billie Holiday (it reached No. 5).
If we assume that Monk heard the pop hit, and if we take a leap of faith that he was directly or indirectly influenced by its catchy melody, which version most likely got into his head and under his skin? After listening to three of the most popular 1936 recordings, I'll put my money on Teddy Wilson's version for Columbia. If you listen to Teddy's [pictured] playing in the song's first run-though, before Billie starts to sing, you'll hear that his stride style here is a little choppy—there are notes that drop in ahead of the beat and before it. It's certainly not a stretch to imagine that Wilson's playing on this side seeped into Monk's early writing and influenced his playing style.
But just because I hear things in my head doesn't mean they exist in reality. So I called Orrin Keepnews, the legendary record producer who worked closely with Monk in the 1950s at Riverside Records. Orrin [pictured with Monk] said he never heard the two songs compared and that he didn't have a clue about the connection:
"It never struck me that way. But I have never been very good in general at what for some people is an art. It will sometimes take me forever, particularly with a standard original, to realize that one song is based on the changes of another. When a new version takes on a life of its own—even if you made the connection originally—you stop making it. To me, the two songs don't have a connection. But that doesn't mean a thing. You need to talk to someone with a knowledge of chord structure."
So I buzzed Hal McKusick:
"The two songs are very different," Hal said. "One is in a minor key and the other is in a major key. The bridges couldn't be more different. Both do resolve in E-flat major. But none of this technical stuff says anything about one song influencing the creation of another. You never know what songs trigger others. Only the artist knows for sure. And in most cases not even the artist is fully aware of what influences him."
And that's where we'll leave it for now. It's my guess that Monk, like all pianists of the time, was influenced by Teddy Wilson's playing. It's also likely that Monk heard and enjoyed Wilson's hit recording of These Foolish Things.
While 'Round Midnight is not based on These Foolish Things' chord changes and Monk never discussed the hit's influence on his brilliant work, to my ear there are similarities—the way both ascend as they progress, their clip-clop tempos, and how both melodies have a yearning feel. These two songs are by no means twins. But to me, they do sound a bit like distant cousins.
And finally, an excerpt from Gerald Early's essay in Jazz: A History of America's Music (2000):
"Thelonious Monk delighted in unconventional rhythms, but his most significant contribution to the new music would be harmonic. Born in North Carolina but raised on New York's West Side, he was just 23 years old in 1940 but had already written several of venturesome tunes, filled with unusual chords and voicings, that would become staples of postwar jazz—'Round Midnight, Epistrophy, Ruby My Dear and Well You Needn't. Monk's music was thoroughly grounded in all that had gone before."
JazzWax tracks: To follow the 'Round Midnight-These Foolish Things trail, listen first to Charlie Parker's These Foolish Things from The Washington Concerts and compare the feel to Dizzy Gillespie's 1948 'Round About Midnight.
Then listen to Teddy Wilson's version of These Foolish Things on Columbia with Billie Holiday from 1936. Pay particular attention to Wilson's piano playing and how it might have influenced Monk's style and phrasing.
Next, listen to Bill Doggett's straightforward arrangement of 'Round About Midnight in 1944 for Cootie Williams. (If you don't own Cootie's version, you can hear a sample here.) Then dig Monk play 'Round Midnight (1947) on Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music (Blue Note).
JazzWax video clips: Go here to see Monk perform 'Round Midnight. His performance never ceases to astonish. Next go here and listen to Benny Goodman's 1936 version. Fascinating to hear the two together.