Jazz Master of the Month: Charlie Rouse

Nov 3, 2015

Charlie Rouse was born in Washington D.C. in 1924, and is mostly remembered as Thelonious Monk’s featured tenor saxophonist from 1959 to 1970. His articulate solos were always full of joy, with each of his fluid phrases perfectly connected to the one before. 

Rouse worked with Billy Eckstein’s orchestra in 1944 and on to the very first Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1945. He recorded with pianist Tadd Dameron in 1947, and then with Duke Ellington from 1949 to 1950. He joined Count Basie in mid-1950, playing in Basie’s famous octet.

Rouse attended Howard University, where he studied classical music and clarinet before taking up the tenor saxophone. It was while playing in one of many jazz clubs on D.C.’s U Street that he met Thelonious Monk. The late DJ Nap Turner was there and recalled that Monk, while passing through, decided to visit the club where Rouse was playing. During intermission Monk bent over to Rouse, asking “what’s your name?” Rouse observed Monk sitting in the dark wearing sunglasses and a beret and looking “weird.” When he responded, Monk said, “I’m putting your number in my bitch’s book” — meaning, you’re an excellent player and I’ll be calling you. 

This became one of the greatest collaborations in jazz. Rouse and Monk developed a very sophisticated interplay, where Monk would interject ideas in between Rouse’s spare lines and the musical interplay became conversations and perfectly contrasted duets that fascinated audiences worldwide.

After Monk’s passing, Rouse became a member of the group “Sphere.” Sphere was Thelonious Monk’s middle name, and the group was primarily dedicated to Monk’s music. During the 1980’s Rouse began to get wider recognition when he participated in Carmen McRae’s classic “Carmen Sings Monk” album. Rouse recorded over 25 albums with Monk, and over 12 as a leader.

Rouse died of lung cancer in 1988 in Seattle Washington, at the age of 64. He will be long remembered as one of the great tenor players of Jazz history.