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.
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But most of New York’s more adventurous jazz musicians dug Thelonious Monk. To this new generation of players, jazz was no longer meant for dancing, nor was it mere background music for some slick crooner. It became much more insular, music for those in the know. If you didn’t dig it, you were a square. Nightly jam sessions anchored by Monk at NY clubs like Minton’s and the Five Spot became competitive “cutting contests,” where brave (or foolhardy) musicians would wait their turn to jump on stage with a horn or guitar to see who could keep up with “the high priest of bebop.” Careers were often made or dashed within the first 24 bars of a Monk tune.Skip to next paragraph
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But they kept coming. For two decades, those smoky dives were America’s test labs for musical innovation, and Monk was their mad professor.
Much of this biography bolsters the theory that all great artists need a muse. Or in Monk’s case – three. A mother’s love nurtured him, and a wife’s love saved him. A third woman, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, so profoundly believed in Monk’s genius that she provided the funds, encouragement– whatever it took – to somehow keep the flame burning for 30 years.
Kelley also paints a vivid portrait of a happy and much-loved child who was encouraged to speak his mind and be himself, a rather unorthodox approach to child-raising in dirt-poor North Carolina in the 1920s. Young Thelonious and his two sisters “were raised by people to whom
freedom had tangible meaning – they heard first-hand stories of emancipation – of black men going to the polls and running for office, of former slaves founding churches and schools.” Indeed, if there is a single word that would most aptly define Monk’s music, it’s freedom.
Late in his performing life, Monk’s profound contributions to music finally began to be appreciated. Several sold-out tours through Europe in the 1960s buoyed his spirits and reputation – but not his bank account or his disintegrating mental health. The very jazz critics who were hostile to the same artist and repertoire years before had finally caught up to his innovations and now proclaimed the music “irresistible in its unorthodoxy.” But the joy and spirit of this man who lived to play was less and less in evidence on the bandstand and home front as the decades progressed. His indefatigable wife Nellie did all she could to keep him going, but Monk was on a downhill slide physically and mentally. Days of frenzied activity and all-night jam sessions would be followed by catatonic silences or bizarre, sometimes- destructive behavior. At times he failed to recognize his own children.
Various medical treatments, including shock therapy and the debilitating drug lithium, were prescribed, but most just appeared to exacerbate his problems. Monk would require the care and patience of a saint until the end of his life in 1982. Fortunately – for Monk and jazz fans worldwide – he was married to one. Remarkably, they soldiered on together with more recordings and overseas tours until 1975, when Monk suddenly stopped performing. His funeral in 1982 attracted 1,000 people, many of them the cream of the jazz world.
Thelonious Monk was a true original. Others continue to play his compositions but no one will ever play them like he did. He once quipped, “Sometimes I play things I never heard myself!” Monk’s singular style was his unique fingerprint on the music world. Those of us fortunate enough to have enjoyed his extraordinary gift live, in performance – as I did as a jazz-hungry teen – will never forget moments such as the summer night at the Ravinia Festival 45 years ago when Monk got up from the piano during a particularly groovy sax solo and danced... for the pure joy of it.
This affectionate biography fills in the fascinating and heart-wrenching backstory of an artist the world has always longed to know better.
John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.