Robin D.G. Kelley on Monk

“You know, anybody can play a composition like [“Body and Soul”] and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy.”

This quote from Thelonious Monk, from a 1961 interview is, fittingly, the last word in Robing D.G. Kelley’s masterful  biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press). It not only sums up Monk’s philosophy on music, but becomes a prevailing theme throughout Kelley’s meticulously researched tome. Over the course of 500 pages, two appendices, and 99 pages of detailed notes, Kelley works tirelessly and achieves the herculean goal of “righting” Monk’s legacy, by challenging the still-persistent notion that Monk was a reclusive savant who barely interacted with the world and could only communicate through his music. “The myth is as attractive as it is absurd,” Kelley admits in the introduction, before taking a hammer to it: “The truth is, Thelonious Monk possessed an impressive knowledge of, and appreciation for, Western classical music, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of hymns and gospel music, American popular songs, and a variety of obscure art songs that defy easy categorization. For him, it was all music.”

The fact that Kelley’s thesis is a new take on Monk, speaks to a fascinating and troubling issue that he plumbs relentlessly throughout the book. The mystification of Monk, nearly universal in his lifetime and still very present today, has complex origins ranging from simple ignorance to downright racism. Kelley examines both in a way that eschews an ideological reading and paints an often-dark portrait of 20th-Century America through the eyes of one of its under-appreciated geniuses.

Kelley’s skills as a researcher shine throughout The Life and Times of an American Original. Unprecedented access to the Monk family, including Thelonious’ wife Nellie who passed away in 2002, and the family’s extensive archive of photographs and home recordings add immeasurably to the narrative, as do contemporaneous press reports and personal accounts that Kelley tirelessly tracked down over more than a decade of research. Equally impressive is Kelley’s ability to weave such copious findings into a tight and riveting narrative. The result is a loving portrait and stark rebuttal of criticism that Monk received during his lifetime and up to the present.

From the odious, “The entire body of resources of Western man relating to the playing of the piano, which dates back to the sixteenth century, remains unknown to Thelonious Sphere Monk for the simple reason that Monk is not Western man. He is Black man,” written by  pianist, critic John Menegan in 1963, to pianist Bill Evans’ loving, but ill-informed statement that Monk lacks “exposure to the Western classical music tradition or, for that matter, comprehensive exposure to any music other than jazz and American popular music,” Kelley illustrates the widely divergent currents that Monk had to navigate throughout his career. By directly comparing statements like these in the text, Kelley reveals the arguably radical — and to my mind, correct — idea that both venomous and merely ignorant statements were equally destructive to Monk. Even the great Quincy Jones partakes in the mystification in a 1965 interview with Valerie Wilmer, “He is not familiar with many classical works, or with much life outside himself, and I think because of this he did not create on a contrived or inhibited basis.”

Kelley’s refusal to accept the Monk myth, along with his insatiable curiosity and towering intellect led him on a 14-year journey to produce what is one of the finest jazz biographies ever written.

Beginning with a detailed and painful illumination of the enslavement that Monk’s ancestors endured in the 19th Century — Kelley opens the first chapter by juxtaposing Thelonious with Julius Withers Monk, who too was achieving fame in the late fifties in NYC, and whose great-grandfather had enslaved Thelonious’ great-grandfather a century earlier — Kelley traces the remarkable ascent of the Monk family, facilitated in large part by Thelonious’ mother Barbara. Leaving her husband (Thelonious’ father) behind in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Barbara brought her three young children to NYC in the early 1920’s to give them a better life.

While life on the west side of Manhattan in the ’20s was certainly better than in the Jim Crow south, Monk’s new neighborhood, San Juan Hill, was anything but genteel. Racial tensions ran high, and occasionally erupted into riots, and while Thelonious avoided trouble when he could, he was quick to defend family and friends. Despite the instability, San Juan Hill was a bastion of creativity during Monk’s childhood. With the support of his mother, Monk studied classical piano, and was playing at a professional level by the time he dropped out of high school.

Kelley meticulously examines Monk’s forty-year career, from his early gig playing for a an itinerant preacher during an extended tour of the United States — a period in Monk’s life that is still shrouded in mystery, to which Kelley goes to great lengths to shed light on — to his final days in seclusion at his life-long friend Nica De Koenigswarter’s Weehawkin home. Kelley recounts Monk’s famously odd behavior, his use of drugs, and his run ins with the law, but in a way that rightly opposes the press accounts from Monk’s time. Monk was the victim of — Kelley asserts — racist  police officers, discriminatory laws like the “cabaret card” requirement and mainstream press accounts that largely served to bolster the prejudices of white audiences. Even the famous cover story that ran in Time Magazine on February 28th, 1964, was largely a retelling of the Monk myth —  the strange hats and mysterious behavior.

Contrary to nearly everything in the press during most of his career and sadly even today, Monk was a worldly, witty, family focused man, Kelley asserts. The Life and Times is rife with masterfully delivered one-liners from Monk, and accounts from family, friends and fellow musicians who attest to Monk’s curiosity about the world around him and deep concern for his family. Kelley also includes transcriptions of Monk painstakingly working out arrangements of his compositions while Nellie sings along or whispers encouragement. Unlike French critic Andre Hodeir’s ignorant assertion that Monk — and, by extension, the “true jazzman” — develops “his language (as) the result of intuition and intuition alone,” Monk developed his original style through painstaking effort, building on a foundation steeped in Western musical tradition.

The most painful chapters in Monk’s life receive equally thorough treatment throughout The Life and Times, and Kelley unflinchingly documents the often-tragic results of Monk’s decades-long struggle with Bipolar disorder and depression. Misdiagnosed for years, Monk eventually finds some relief through therapy and medication, but not before violent run-ins with the law (exacerbated by racism), involuntary commitment, shock therapy and bodily damage from dangerous prescription drugs. It is in these trying chapters, that the Monk family truly shines, and it is a theme that Kelley successfully brings to the fore. It took a family to create and support the life and incredible music of Thelonious Monk. It’s been stated before, but never with the insistence and authority that Kelley does here.

The only criticism I’ve seen leveled at Kelley is that he is too close to his subject, dismissing criticisms of Monk’s erratic behavior and general unreliability when they might have a basis in true, but in the end they fall flat. The Life and Times of an American Original is that rare biography that is as generous as it is scholarly. Imagine an unflinching, yet loving tribute painstakingly crafted by a close friend, and you’ll understand the warmth and humanity that permeate this masterwork. It was a lifetime coming, and worth the wait.

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