Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk: The Man, the Myth, the Music
AAJ: Were there things you learned about Monk that you didn't include in the book?
RK: Well, there are so many things. The first draft of the manuscript was 2,500 pages! Most of what got cut were not things about Monk, but about people around Monk. There are great stories about his familyhe was very close to them. And it's interesting how many people take credit for Monk's success, whether it's producers or friends, but his anchor was his family, both his wife, Nellie's, family and his own. So, if anything, many of their stories were cut out.
AAJ: But the book beautifully conveys his family life, which was marvelous, and what a loving person Monk was.
RK: Yes, and as a father, he was really ahead of his time. Imagine, it's the 1950s, and you don't believe in corporal punishment, and you believe in helping kids to make decisions for themselves so they can be who they really are. And he succeeded as a parent. His kids turned out well and they became very interesting people.
AAJ: Monk had a genius about many things in addition to music. Am I correct that "Tootie" is the musician T.S. Monk, Jr.?
RK: Yes, and to be precise, he is T.S. Monk.
AAJ: Soabout yourself. You've published this monumental, definitive biography of Monk, a beautiful work, and you have many other accomplishments as well. Where do you see yourself going in the future?
RK: Right now I'm finishing up a couple of other books. One is a short book about jazz and modern Africa in the '50s and early '60s, from a series of lectures I gave at Harvard. It's called Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa, and that should be the end of it in terms of writing about music. I'm also working on another textbook on African American history, obviously not to replace John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom. Two other authors and myself are trying to do something different. And I'm looking at some other projects. But I'm still trying to recover from Monk! That book really wore me out!
AAJ: And you've implied in many ways that you were profoundly changed by writing that book.
RK: Oh, no question about it! One thing I should have said earlier is that I learned from Monk even about writing the book. Like, don't be convoluted. Speak plainly. Make the point. Be succinct. Monk tended to play short phrases, and I tried to match them with short sentences that are direct.
AAJ: Well, I'd say you achieved your goal. The book is tremendous reading. I couldn't put it down! One final question. Were you involved in the civil rights movement?
RK: No. I'm after that time. I'm on the young side. I'm 47. My daughter thinks I'm old! [Laughter.] I came of age politically in the late 1970s, with the peace movement, anti-colonialism in Southern Africa, anti-apartheid. That's sort of my era.
AAJ: I'm 20 years older than you. I'm a white guy, but I was in DC for King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I also remember seeing Monk at the Five Spot back then, although your book made me wonder whether it was the first or second location of the club. But you're African American, you've been through your own trip, yet you need to remain a historian, an independent observer. Given all that, how would you sum up your experience with Monk, with the music, and the culture in which we live?
RK: I think there are two things that Monk literally taught me directly about living in the now. One is that you should never be afraid of the truth. Whether or not he offended you, he always told you the truth. Even his manager said that in the whole time they worked together, only once did he catch Monk in a little lie. Otherwise, he was always going to speak truth no matter what the consequences were. More of that would certainly make our lives a lot better. The second thing is that Monk taught me the importance of slowing down. We live in a culture now that is built on sound bites. People don't even want to read a book from cover to coverthey'll go to the index to find out what they want to read about. Because in this computer world, it's Google, it's surfing, fishing for the little things, but not seeing the big picture. And Monk's whole thing was, look, slow down. Learn one bar at a time. Play the whole song. Don't skip the melody to go to the improvisation. Know the song. With Monk, there were no sound bites. Every moment in life was electric, and he made sure that we understood that. And so now, in my own life, in my writing, in my politics, I have to slow down and look at the big picture, and make sure that the whole story is told.
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