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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

This affectionate biography of Theolonius Monk fills in the backstory of an artist the world has long wished to know better.

By John Kehe / November 12, 2009



Miles Davis made more money. Duke Ellington was more prolific. CharlieParker was more revered. But no one had a more profound impact on modern jazz than Thelonious Monk. The legendary pianist/composer with the strange hats and even stranger moniker (his given name) has finally become the subject of the kind of meticulously researched biography that lesser lights were afforded long ago. The enigmatic Monk is a tough nut to crack, to be sure, but what fascinating and delicious rewards await inside Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin D.G. Kelley’s illuminating biography.

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Who knew, for instance, that the godfather of bebop‚ was a devoted family man, loving husband, and diaper-changing, doting father who lived in the same modest Manhattan apartment for a half century? Or that the pianist whose playing style was ravaged by critics for being “dissonant‚ unschooled‚ and primitive‚“ was in fact well-schooled in classical music at a young age and could play many difficult pieces from memory? But his real passion was kindled by the kind of jazz he heard as a teen, wafting through the halls and open windows of his San Juan Hill neighborhood, a densely populated melting pot of black and Caribbean transplants.

A few decades later, as both unique piano stylist and composer, Monk would influence and inspire not only his contemporaries but generations of musicians to come. Kelley, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, reminds us that “Monk’s compositions constitute the core of jazz repertory and are performed by artists from many different genres. ‘Round Midnight,’ ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ ‘Well, You Needn’t,’ and ‘Ruby My Dear,’ among others, have become bona-fide jazz standards; no self-respecting jazz musician today can get a job or participate in a jam session without knowing these tunes.” Today, the most prestigious award in jazz goes to the winner of the annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.

‘Nuff said – the man’s a giant. But how did this eccentric genius, who was more renowned in his lifetime for his goofy name and nutty on-stage antics than his music, become  central figure on the Mt. Rushmore of jazz?

It wasn’t easy being Monk. His unorthodox approach to piano and challenging compositions were ridiculed for decades, while others garnered praise for the barriers he crashed. Chronic tardiness and erratic stage behavior (attributed, at least in part, to an undiagnosed mental illness that would prematurely rob him of his career) cost him many a prize gig, as well as the desperately-needed income it might have brought him and his young family. Monk’s “weirdness,” personified by the hipster goatee he sported and the collection of French berets, Chinese skullcaps, and small “pork pie” fedoras he pioneered, sadly received more press than his breakthrough music throughout most of his career. Audiences used to more mainstream jazz pianists like Dave Brubeck or Earl Hines would sometimes literally laugh out loud when Monk struck his trademark dissonant chords, playing “between” the notes, his splayed fingers stabbing adjacent keys simultaneously. Old-school jazz musicians, most of them veterans of the smooth and syncopated big bands of the 1930s, shook their heads and said, “Man, the cat just can’t play.”

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