Ethan Iverson at The New Yorker:
At the beginning, Thelonious Monk was a shadowy figure known only to fellow-innovators. To help generate publicity, the Blue Note label dubbed him “the high priest” for his first records, as a bandleader, in the late nineteen-forties. After Monk spent a few more years in penniless obscurity, suddenly, most of New York City went to the Five Spot, where he was in residence for multiple months in 1957. From there he became a household name and one of the biggest draws on the European circuit. In 1964, he even appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and was profiled by Lewis Lapham, in the Saturday Evening Post, although most of the mainstream press during Monk’s lifetime made unhappy allusions to craziness, infantilism, and negroid primitivism. Eventually, the record companies decided that he wasn’t a religious icon (“the high priest”) but a warrior instead, and his last significant major-label release, “Underground,” depicted him on the cover with guns, grenades, and a captured Nazi.
During Monk’s ascendency, his style was so different from that of any other bebop or modern-jazz pianist. It was stubborn, incantatory, utterly African. Occasionally, when his left hand opened up and gave an accurate quotation of glorious Harlem stride, it became downright anachronistic. Some of the cognoscenti were bewildered, at least at first.