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.


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