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Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk: The Man, the Myth, the Music

By Published: February 25, 2010

Monk's Role in the Development of Bebop

AAJ: Let me ask you a theoretical question. I'm very interested in the transition from swing to bebop that occurred in the 1940s. You quote Teo Macero as saying about Monk: "He, along with Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, has shaped American jazz to what it is today." While I totally enjoy Monk's playing and his compositions, it remains difficult for me to say exactly how he did influence the jazz scene as a whole. In particular, Monk claimed that he was one of the innovators of bebop. In fact, in your book, you state that Monk wrote a song called "Bip Bop" from which the phrase "bebop" developed. Yet to me his music is unique and so different from bebop. Where does he fit into the overall history and legacy of jazz? The subtitle of your book is "The Life and Times of an American Original," which implies that he stands outside rather than being a part of the jazz evolution of his time.

Thelonious Monk with Charlie Parker

RK: I think there are two things going on. One is that when Monk claims that he originated bebop, on some basic level he's trying to make a name for himself so that he could get work! In 1948 especially, when he hadn't had his moment in the sun, he's trying to remind people, and this was his livelihood at stake, that, "Don't keep lookin' at Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
, and Bird, and Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
, who I trained, but look at me, because I basically was there at the get-go." So part of it is that he's trying to make a case for himself and why he should get gigs.

But the other part is that while his contribution is not direct and no one directly adopts his style, it is true that whenever any artist was trying to learn how to play on extended chords and harmonies, and how to voice chords differently, and more generally how to get past the more traditional voicings, they all came to Monk. And Monk showed them something. Dizzy took from Monk, and though there's no way Dizzy sounds like Monk, but he learned a lot about voicing from him. So I think theoretically, Monk made a huge contribution not so much by people mimicking him, but by people coming to him and sharing ideas. And Monk always talked about how frustrated he was that he didn't get credit for sitting down with Dizzy, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron

Tadd Dameron
Tadd Dameron
1917 - 1965
, and that's where I think Monk did make a contribution, but it's not as visible. In those recordings they made for Norman Granz, in 1950, you had Monk at the piano, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
, and they're radically different.

AAJ: That clarifies a great deal for me, and maybe your book will change our perspective on Monk in the context of bebop. You're saying that Monk played a major role by teaching his cohorts new harmonic ideas. So, where did Monk get his notions of harmony?

RK:That may be more speculation than anything else. I think there were several forces. First, he did have classical training. Monk liked the Russian composers, and he also liked the French composers like Chopin, and he liked the late 19th-century French Impressionist composers who were using whole tone scales, for example. And Monk had a fascination with whole tones. My theory is that he figured it out from playing that music, and he wasn't the only one, by the way, who did that.

AAJ: But he did it differently from some of the others.

RK: Coleman Hawkins used whole tones. So the classical composers are one source. Another source came from the stride pianists he hung out with, like Willie "The Lion" Smith

Willie "The Lion" Smith
1897 - 1973
and James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
and Clarence Profit. If you do a very careful study of these pianists' recordings, you can hear a lot of the dissonance that we associate with Monk. You can hear it in the passing chords, where Johnson would bend notes, and hit a minor second. They were already doing that stuff, they just didn't do it all the time like Monk did.

And there's another pianist who is wholly underrated, and Monk loved him, and that's Herman Chittison

. He was doing some of that stuff. Chittison had a fluidity that Monk wasn't that interested in. But he had some of the harmonic ideas that Monk built on. So I think some of that stuff was in the air, and Monk in his own mind was able to synthesize it at the piano, and think about things that no one else was able to think about. So many of his ideas come from his solitude and focus, and the fact that he could sit at the piano for hours on hours and figure things out like a scientist.

AAJ: One could say that he was a Buddhist "Monk." He had an aspect of what they call "mindfulness."


Monk as a Controversial Personality

AAJ: Your book is special in the thoroughness with which you bring in the world that surrounded Monk. For one thing, Monk almost had a dual personality. In your book, one comes across these two personae repeatedly. One is Thelonious as a sincere, straight-ahead, even brilliant man and musician, extremely accomplished, adored by many. On the other hand, there are times when he appears an eccentric, out of touch, mentally ill, addicted, unreliable, erratic, and impulsive individual. Now, he did have a major mental illness. You point out that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic-depression). So my question is, how do you reconcile these two sides of Monk? Would you say that he had a split (Jekyll-Hyde) personality, flipping from one side to the other? Or do you think that the two sides overlap in some way? Or do you think that some of this portrayal of Monk is really a distortion, resulting perhaps from the way jazz musicians are erroneously portrayed, or even the stereotype of the "Negro" male as inadequate and comical?

RK: Each exhibition of Monk's behavior has to be seen in context. So there are some cases where what appears to be eccentric behavior is really performance on his part. And not just on stage, but in other situations as well. He reveled in attention. Sometimes he'll do something for humorous effect. So sometimes a journalist or a writer or an observer would take this humorous effect and stamp it as "crazy." In other cases, his behavior really is a manifestation of his bipolar episodes. I say episodes because the bipolar condition is not constant. But it's not that he is sane and then suddenly goes crazy. People sort of know when he's about to go into an episode. His manager, his wife, they all knew. And so sometimes it's his mental illness.

Other times, he does things which to me make perfect sense. I'll give you two examples from the book. One is where he's playing a gig, and the pedal posts of the piano are just falling apart. So he reaches down to pull the whole mechanism out. That gets described as "This man's crazy—look at him tearing up the piano!" But in fact, he's trying to get the broken part out of the way. So Monk's behavior is impulsive, but it's logical. Similarly, he's posing for his painting for the cover of Time Magazine, and he keeps falling asleep! So the artist, Boris Chaliapin, says, "Well, this guy's really eccentric—he's falling asleep while I'm painting him." But if you know his schedule at the time, of course, he's falling asleep. He hasn't been able to sleep in days!

So, in context, some things really are manifestations of his mental illness, some things are his sense of humor. Though he was a mature man, there was a mischievous boy inside of him. He would play tricks on people. He would talk about you badly to your face. He would make people laugh by doing funny things. He would revel in that. So the final example is in the film Straight, No Chaser, and the camera is on him when he's at the airport spinning around. Everyone says, there goes Monk spinning around in the middle of an airport, the man's crazy. But I know from talking with the filmmaker that Monk set it up that way for the camera—he wanted to be funny. Monk is the consummate performer. And he leans over toward the camera lens—he knows he's on film. And so that's the Monk mystique, and Monk himself is partly responsible for it.

AAJ: He partly created that image of himself, and there were also some misattributions by others as well. It was "both, and" rather than "either, or."

RK: Exactly, and it was entertaining. It was fun for him.

AAJ: That rotating, circular movement that he did. I thought perhaps he had a disorder like Tourette's syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder, both of which can involve stereotypical movements. But you seem to be suggesting that it was pure theatrics on his part.

RK: It was an act, but it was an act that comes out of a much older African American tradition, namely the "Ring-Shout." See, he traveled with an evangelist for over two years. And so what he saw, in addition to faith healing, were the people doing an old African dance that became very important in black Christian circles, and that's the "Ring-Shout." I'm not the first one to stay that. The historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out that Monk was doing the "Ring-Shout." Monk saw certain dance moves that he was mimicking.

Thelonious MonkInterestingly, I never met a musician who played with Monk who said that the dance was weird or strange. They all say that the dance was his way of conducting the band, setting the tempo, showing where the accents were. And he used his body in some ways to give you that. I've studied so many films of Monk, and where he puts the accents, it's not always between the two and the four, but sometimes he'll put the accent on what is essentially the one beat of the next measure, but in his mind it's the fifth beat of an extended measure, and so sometimes, in the mood of the music, he embodies that understanding. In one of my favorite moments in the book, the French horn player in his big band, Robert Northern, cannot figure out how to play a particular passage, and he's struggling with the rhythm, and so Monk takes him in a corner during a break, and he taps it out, dances the whole rhythm for him, and he gets it right away!

AAJ: Your book suggests that Monk was a remarkable teacher and mentor. Whereas most leaders come in with arrangements and charts, it was as if Monk taught in the traditional way of a tribesman. He taught by example and learning by ear. He would teach one on one, and now you're pointing out how he used his body to convey his ideas, to get across his rhythmic changes and so on. And he would be provocative sometimes. Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
mentioned how they would all go over to Monk's apartment and hang out to learn from him.

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