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

Victor L. Schermer By

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Robin D.G. Kelley is the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), the already definitive biography that has received rave reviews in the press and is the topic of conversation of Monk fans and musicians everywhere.

Robin D.G. Kelley Author Robin D.G. Kelley

Kelley offers the rich perspective of an African-American historian who knows a great deal about the music, and has researched his subject in depth and detail. Kelley explodes some of the myths about Monk and portrays the man and his music with depth, sensitivity, and circumspection, revealing a brilliant musician and a complex human being with an elusive and ever-changing persona. He documents Monk's sociocultural context and his family life, career, and friendships, clarifying some of the reasons and motives for Monk's actions that were often misunderstood by critics and fans alike. He also takes travels through Monk's compositions, recordings, and live performances, showing his inventiveness and the impact he had on the music of his era and beyond.

Chapter Index

  1. Robin Kelley and the Monk Biography
  2. Monk and His Music
  3. Monk's Role in the Development of Bebop
  4. Monk as a Controversial Personality
  5. Blacks and Whites, Race and Music
  6. Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter
  7. Concluding Thoughts

Robin Kelley and the Monk Biography

AAJ: You are a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California and currently a visiting lecturer at Oxford. How did you get interested in jazz and come to write a biography of Thelonious Monk?

RK: I've been interested in jazz since I was a child. Although I currently live in California, I'm originally from New York, and I took trumpet lessons with Jimmy Owens when I was about seven years old. My mother made sure that this music was part of our lives. Later, as a teenager, I began playing piano, never took a lesson, basically self-taught. At one point in my life, I even considered music as a career, but ended up going in a different direction. But I was always engaged with music.

Monk was a favorite of mine since I was about 18 or 19. At the time, I was more interested in trying to play his music than in writing about him. It wasn't until I was already deep into my career as a historian that I could return to jazz not just out of love for it, but as an area of study. I was particularly interested in Monk from that standpoint, because there were so many stories about his behavior and so much confusion about his music. And the stories about his music and his behavior were conflated, and that always disturbed me because anyone who plays his music will know that there is a logic there and a mind that is very deliberate and clear about what he wants to do. So I wanted to demystify Monk, try to explain and understand him as well as his aesthetic and musical intentions. Although, with the final editing of the book, a good deal of the musical analysis was omitted, because the book editors felt it was too technical.

AAJ: I'd like to interject that the book does indeed have a considerable discussion of the music, which is quite astute, but what you're saying is that some of the more sophisticated musical analysis was cut, because it would only be understandable to a few readers. Maybe those segments could go in a music journal. There's a new one entitled Jazz Perspectives edited by Lewis Porter.

RK: Yes, I'm on the editorial board! It's a very good journal, by the way. Many of the leading jazz scholars are connected with it. And I may put some of that more technical stuff about Monk on my website monkbook.com.

AAJ: In my opinion, two of the finest jazz biographies to date are Lewis Porter's of Coltrane and yours of Monk.

RK: Well, thank you very much, because that puts me in good company. I have nothing but praise for Lewis Porter and his work. He's brilliant. And I cite him quite a bit in my own book.

AAJ: As a writer myself, I have a question. I've read many biographies of all kinds, and I've rarely seen one that contained as much information, from so many different sources, and different kinds of sources—letters, record albums, interviews, bootleg recordings, and on and on—and yet you put them together into a very readable narrative. How did you manage this?

RK: I have two answers. One is my training as a historian. Dealing with archives and trying to make sense of all the data, and not over-analyze but try to tell a good story. If I hadn't written seven books before that, I don't think I could have done it. I had lots of practice! Also, I had certain role models. You and I corresponded about John Hope Franklin, who was a professor of yours many years ago. I think Franklin was one of the greatest historians whose footsteps I try to follow in terms of his ability to tell a story, but also to say why it's important.

The second thing was that it took me fourteen years to get this book together! I wrote things in between, but from beginning to end, it took a long time and many drafts. I mean, I had things wrong, and to this day, I'm correcting things in the book that I'm discovering. Small things, nothing big. I can't tell you how difficult it was to write this book, even trying to figure out one day of Monk's life. Sometimes it required effort to figure out something insignificant. I also came across a lot of inaccuracies in the previous writing of others, and at first I began to repeat those mistakes, and then I discovered it wasn't right, and so part of the work involved not only demystifying the man and the myth, but also trying to get the record straight. I can't say I did everything I wanted to do, but if I hadn't invested fourteen years, it wouldn't be the same book, and it wouldn't be satisfying to me.

AAJ: So you immersed yourself in the material for a big chunk of your life.

RK: Basically, to try to walk in someone's footsteps, it was emotionally wrenching, to where sometimes I couldn't get up. It was exhausting.

AAJ: What in particular was emotionally wrenching?

Robin D.G. Kelley / Thelonious MonkRK: The frustration I felt for Monk. It seemed like every single moment he's on the precipice of a great success, turning a corner, and something would knock him down! And to be honest, it wasn't until I really sat down and wrote that I began to see the arc of the story. You start to put things together, and then, boom! He's arrested at the worst possible time. He becomes sick at the worst time, at the point where he's about to make that leap. And then when I began to look at the money, that was totally depressing! Like everyone else, I was convinced that after about 1957, Monk was doing quite well financially. But once you start doing the math, you realize, wait a second, he's still struggling. Even at the height of his powers. And that was hard to take, especially when I identified with him.

On the other hand, there were things that Monk did that don't always make him a likable person. And maybe that's the secret to a good biography. You can identify with the person, but not so much to where you don't see the flaws and the problems. You've got to recognize what it means to be a human being. The man made good and bad choices and decisions, great things and terrible things happened in his life.

AAJ: So you identified with Monk and his struggles and literally hurt for him at times. It seems that many jazz musicians have been ripped off financially. It's one of the tragedies of this music.

RK: Absolutely.

Monk and His Music

AAJ: Which are some of your favorite Monk recordings, and why?

Thelonious Monk Thelonious Monk

RK: Well, I love everything by Monk. I think of Monk's music as a whole body of work. But I'm partial to some of the songs he recorded less frequently, like "Brilliant Corners," for example, or "Gallop's Gallop." These were intricate songs that melodically were unlike anything anyone else was doing. They defy categories. I love those pieces. I also love "Introspection." Harmonically, it's one of those really interesting songs where there's no tonal center. It's incredibly free, and yet there's a clear path he's taking melodically. On the other hand, I also love his interpretations of standards. It's hard not to laugh out loud when you listen to him playing "Nice Work If You Can Get It" or "Darn that Dream." The romanticism is still there, but there's a certain humor as well. One of the great recordings is where he was backing vocalist Kenny "Pancho" Hagood on "I Should Care," with Milt Jackson, where what they do behind the singer is out of this world. So those are some highlights for me, but it's hard to say, because I love everything by Monk.

AAJ: The element of fun, of play, was evident not only in his music, but in every aspect of his life, judging from your book.

RK: Absolutely.

AAJ: Monk often had trouble getting the musicians together and having a good situation to make recordings. Which of his recordings would you say were the best as albums, where everything came together?

RK: That's almost impossible to answer, because there were times when the most difficult conditions came together really well. Brilliant Corners is an example. It was saved in many ways by Orrin Keepnews, who edited several different takes. So here you have a session in which everyone who played on it said it was a disaster! And yet the end result is spectacular. On the other hand, when he got his quartet together, the basic quartet with Charlie Rouse, with Ben Riley or Frankie Dunlop on drums, some of those recordings are really tight and well done. They may not be as exciting as Monk playing at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin, where Griffin is still learning the music. That to me may be more exciting than the quartet playing yet another version of "Blue Monk," let's say five years later. So to me, sometimes when things are not perfect, that's when Monk produces some of the most beautiful music.

I will say this, though. There are songs everyone sleeps on. Monk in his quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley, they do Duke Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You," on the Straight, No Chaser LP, it's very uncharacteristic, but it's just perfect! What Charlie Rouse is doing, and everyone in the band is doing is absolutely stunning. But the critics never talk about that recording. Live at the It Club is my favorite live recording with Monk's quartet. Not to say that the Five Spot sessions aren't great, but in Live at the It Club, the whole band is on fire. That's from a time when Monk was struggling with his mental health, and things were not going so well overall, but that recording is just fantastic!

AAJ: You've made me aware that for some jazz recordings, the virtue is their excitement, and for others it is the perfection or in exceptional cases, the innovation.

RK:Right, absolutely.

AAJ: And any or all of those elements can make for a memorable recording. Now, the next question was actually stimulated by a lecture that Lewis Porter gave in Philadelphia on Clifford Brown. Porter played several different recordings that Brown had made of the song "Cherokee" and showed how the latter's playing matured over the time between the first and last versions. Now with Monk, it's hard for me to tell if his music developed significantly over time, or whether, once he got his groove, he pretty much stayed on the same wavelength through most of his career. Do you have your own take on that?

RK:That's an excellent question, one of the best questions anyone has ever asked me. It may seem strange, but I'm going to say that both are true. Early on, meaning the 1940s, on the Blue Note recordings, he developed an aesthetic for both his compositions and his improvisations, and he pretty much stuck to it through the end. On the other hand, I do think there is a development in his approach that has to do with tempo and the number of notes he would play. If you listen to the Blue Note recordings, as much as I argue that he is not a bebop player as such, that although he contributed to bebop, he really had his own unique approach, he plays a lot of notes, and although the 78 rpm format is short, they're full. Over time, especially later in life, by the end of the '60s, he likes slower tempos, he ends up playing longer solos, partly because of the 33 rpm LP format, but also because he had more to say, and he also is more aware of economy and space. There's less space in those early recordings than there is when we get into the '50s and '60s.

Thelonious MonkThe other thing that happens is that while he did play stride piano in the '40s, he becomes more wedded to stride piano, returning to those old fashioned yet still modern techniques that he grew up playing. My argument is that what he's trying to do is to distinguish himself from the jazz avant-garde. And here is one of the strange ironies. Here's a man whose music helps usher in what becomes free jazz, I mean, Monk is one of their heroes. On the other hand, he didn't like what they were doing. And so he is trying to remind listeners, this is what it means to swing. This is where I come from. I'm not Ornette Coleman, I'm Thelonious Monk. So he records more solo pieces, more solo LPs. It's not producers asking him to do it; he wants to do it. He wants more solo pieces. He wants to slow the tempos down. He wants to remind listeners of those great pianists of the past.

AAJ: Monk was profoundly steeped in tradition. And also, his sense of rhythm was the greatest in the history of jazz. He did his own flip with the rhythm. Paul Desmond said, "Monk plays at an angle. And it's the right angle." I imagine he got that angle from the stride pianists but made it uniquely his own.

RK:That's very astute, because most critics and commentators who were contemporaries of Monk talked about his harmony. But it's his rhythm which distinguished him from so many other players. And if you read the interviews of those who performed with Monk, most of what they learned from him wasn't about harmony, but about rhythm. He had a way of swinging that was unique. And he never lost his place rhythmically. He was always right there.

AAJ: He could even come back to the piano after going off stage, and just hit the piano right on cue.

RK:Exactly. Even before he sat down, he hit that note!


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