Monday, February 20, 2012

“Straight, No Chaser”

Happy Monday, friends. Today’s edition of the Monday Morning Blues is going to be looking at a great & justifiably renowned jazz standard that just happens also to be a 12-bar blues.

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the classification of instruments into their various groups: wind, string & percussion. But what fascinated me most was the fact that the instrument I myself played, the piano, was sometimes classified as a stringed instrument (or chordophone) & sometimes as a percussion instrument (or idiophone.) Of course, the sound on a piano is ultimately produced by the strings, but in order to produce that sound there’s a lot of “striking” going on, both by the fingers on the keys & the hammers on the strings themselves. & anyone who has listened to the great Thelonious Monk know very well how much the piano can be percussive.

I love Monk’s music—it’s a rich & deep & playful & lyrical—& I love his playing.  Not all have shared this opinion; poet Phillip Larkin described Monk as “the elephant on the keyboard,” & as Monk was in the forefront of Bebop, he most certainly had his detractors among the Trad Jazz & moldy fig crowd. But by & large, history has borne out his significance; Monk’s compositions are the second most recorded songs in the jazz world, following only the compositions of the great Duke Ellington (who wrote considerably more), & some of them are among the best known jazz standards: today’s song, “Straight, No Chaser,” would certainly fit in that category, as would “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Epistrophy” & “Ruby, My Dear,” just to name a handful.

“Straight, No Chaser” is harmonically a straightforward 12-bar blues in the key of Eb that follows the “quick change” pattern—in other words, the IV chord appears in the second measure rather than waiting until the fifth measure.  In addition, there are chord substitutions in the eighth & ninth measures. In a completely straight 12-bar blues, the eighth measure would contain the I or tonic chord, while the ninth measure would contain the V or dominant chord; here, however, Monk substitutes the iiim7 & the VI7 in the eighth measure, & the iim7 in the ninth—these are all fairly standard jazz chord substitutions, & those of you who are up on your music theory will see that the progression there is moving along the Circle of Fifths. One characteristic of the song—& indeed, a characteristic found in other Monk melodies—is that the melody shifts in terms of how the notes fall in relation to the beat, which takes a relatively simple melodic idea & adds great complexity. Mary Lou Williams—who was a mentor to Monk & to the Bebop crowd in general—also did that with many of her melodies.

The original recording (which is the version in this video) was recorded for Blue Note in 1951. The session included Monk on piano, Art Blakey on drums, Al McKibbon on bass, Milt Jackson on vibes & Sahib Shihab on alto sax. Miles Davis recorded a famous cover of “Straight, No Chaser” (in the key of F) on his Milestones album, & Carmen McRae covered the tune as a vocal titled “Get It Straight.”

Great composition—enjoy!


  1. Brilliant John! And thanks for the education, though you lost me a bit in theory section...

  2. Hi Titus: Thanks! Yes, as I was writing it I realized I should have put a disclaimer on that paragraph--sorry!--a problem with being behind schedule as I was today. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Ah! Monk is always great to listen to! Larkin's comment has always puzzled me. How could anyone listen to Monk play "'Round Midnight" and call him "the elephant on the keyboard"? No ears, man, no ears at all!

  4. Hi Roy: Larkin was just out & out wrong; I mean, I know what he was hearing in a sense, but he completely misunderstood Monk's approach. & yes, Monk is always great to listen to--thanks!

  5. I thought I didn't know Straight, No Chaser. But when I listened to it, I realised I know it very well! I've had it for years on one of several unnamed cassette tapes an old friend recorded for me - Monk and Bud Powell, mainly.

    I think Larkin's jazz judgements were somewhat stick-in-the-mud. He should have stuck to the day job (and the poetry).

  6. Hi Dominic: Oh, I've had tapes like that! Yes, a great song, & a standard, certainly. Larkin was obviously writing from a Trad Jazz/moldy fig viewpoint.


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