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.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Robin D.G. Kelley Free Press 608 pp., $30

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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