Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk: The Man, the Myth, the Music
AAJ: To change the topic, you, as a historian, must think about how the African American musician is perceived in societyhow that has changed, yet how there are still elements of racism in our society.
RK: It's not just white perceptions, but even those of African Americans themselves, who would believe certain things about black jazz musicians or about Monk in particular. And there's no question that racism had an impact across the board, even on white musicians. White musicians at the time were not listened to carefully enough. There's no question that Monk sometimes took a ribbing for hiring white musicians in his band. But the good news is that once you get inside the world of jazz, racism is not what defines their relationships. It's about whether you can play. And that's something that Monk always insisted upon. His thing was that color isn't going to define what I do and who I hire. In that respect, he was something of a rebel, but he was still very much rooted in the culture of jazz that puts a premium on whether you can play or not.
And that's why Monk really liked Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, for example. He probably would have kept them as permanent members of his band if they hadn't gone with Bill Evans. He really liked Phil Woods and continued to use him in his big bands, because Phil Woods could swing. At the same time, the truth of the matter is that for a lot of black musicians, arrest and institutionalization were more common than for others, for the same or similar behaviors. But that's not about jazz, that's about the police! But here's a final example of how racism affects everybody: jazz was not as lucrative in those days as playing modern concert music, and because jazz was associated with black bodies, white musicians for the most part weren't getting paid well, either! Of course there were Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, but for the most part if you chose to play this music, you were not going to make money. So it's not like the white musicians were making money and black musicians were not. Nobody was making money!
AAJ: That's still true today!
RK: Exactly. And part of it is the way the music has been evaluated. Do you know what it means that six nights a week, you've got to go out and make original music every gig?
AAJ: I think that in some ways it's harder to be a really fine jazz musician than to be an equally fine classical musician. Because it derives in part from popular culture, there's a certain devaluation of jazz. I've heard classical musicians make derogatory comments about jazz, but I think it was Peter Nero who said, "That's because they can't play it!" Jazz players are among the best musicians of any kind, but there's a misunderstanding about the serious aspect of jazz music.
AAJ: Now, one of the key figures of jazz at that time was not herself a musician, namely, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. We know about her helping out Charlie Parker, who tragically passed away in her apartment, and in your book you elaborate that she was a member of the wealthy Rothschild family, who rejected her, and how close she was to Monk, who would even go to her home to practice and wrote "Pannonica," the song about her. But it's hard to get a take on whether she was a serious lover of jazz and helped the musicians, or whether she was a sort of eccentric jazz groupie, who hung out with them for her own selfish motives. Did you get a feeling about her personality and her motivation?
RK: Yes, I did, and by the way, there's a book coming out next year, the first biography of Nica, by David Kasdin. He's been working on it for a long time, and it should be very good. She has gotten a bad rap, because she hung out with a lot of musicians, but she saw herself as a friend and a resource. She spent a lot of time helping musicians like Sonny Clark detox from drugs. She'd pick up musicians she knew from parks and street corners. She'd have them stay with her to clean them up. She did what Mary Lou Williams was trying to do as well, but without the religious connotations. She managed Art Blakey for a while, and she really was knowledgeable about the music. So many times, when Monk was out on the West Coast, or he needed a drummer or bassist, he'd call Nica, and she would know who to call, because she knew who the great musicians were. Monk didn't always agree with Nica, but he trusted her ear and he trusted her decisions. So she put her money and her mouth on the line when it came to supporting the music.
Was she eccentric? Sure, and strange in some ways. She paid a price, in that her commitment to the music led to her divorce, to being cut off financially from the greatest wealth she should have gotten from her family. There were times when she didn't have any money, and Monk loaned her money. She was a very important figure in this music. But she made some bad choices. Her doctor, Robert Freymann, to whom she referred Monk, was terrible. She didn't know that he was giving his patients amphetamines under the guise of vitamin shots. She learned that later. She was taking them as well. But for the most part, she had good intentions, and she was very knowledgeable.
AAJ: From that assessment, she comes out looking pretty good. She stood outside the norm, but she genuinely cared about the music and the musicians and was of great service to them.