Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D.G. KelleyFree Press
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a meticulously documented, yet easy-to-read chronicle of the roller coaster life of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. It took Robin Kelley, a professor of History and American Studies at The University of Southern California, 14 years to complete, and is a sometimes humourous, but often grim, account of Monk's determination to succeed in an ecomonically marginal profession while properly providing for his wife and children.
The author was fortunate in getting the blessing of Monk's son, the drummer T.S. Monk, who introduced him to his father's surviving family and friends, and secured him interviews unavailable to other biographers. Such priviliged access allows Kelley to write as if he had been a fly on the wall during Monk's life, describing incidents and events about with which only an insider could be familiar.
Kelley calls the book an "act of love." Writing it was a mission to set the record straight, in particular to dispel the negative stereotypes associated with being a jazz musician. Monk's life proved that discipline and a strong will are the keys to maintaining a livelihood in America and that being a jazz musician is no different than any other occupation. As Kelley has it, "playing" jazz is the wrong word to use when describing what full-time musicians do. The activity should be called what it is: "working."
This is not the first attempt to celebrate the life of the so-called "high priest of bop," an eccentric who few people understood. Many of his contemporaries dismissed Monk as a "nut," who brought on his own problems via alcohol and drugs. They cited the occasions when Monk would get up from the piano during a performance and start to dance around the stage, his habit of not speaking for days, and his dramatic mood swings. Kelley records that Monk was diagnosed as bipolar and heavily medicated for most of his adult life. He reveals, too, that in 1941, Monk's father was committed to the "colored" insane asylum at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina, with the same condition. He died there 22 years later.
Kelley suggests that Monk's condition was inherited from his father, and that the best way to describe him might be as walking wounded. He writes that Monk's penchant for dancing on stage was simply his way of signalling to the band when they were playing just right. According to some band members, Monk only got up to dance when the music was to his liking; otherwise he remained seated. Others remember that Monk always said that jazz was dance music. His long periods of silence, Kelley states, were because, most of the time, he didn't have anything to say. He preferred to let his music speak for him.
Monk himself often said that it was to his advantage to make people think he was "crazy," for they would then leave him alone to do what he did best: make music. The reader is left in no doubt that performance and composition were his twin obsessions, or that Monk mastered them to perfection, producing enduring treasures like "Round Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "Ruby My Dear" and "Pannonica"just four examples among many.
Monk's achievements included being voted Best Jazz Pianist for several years by Downbeat magazine. He toured extensively in America, and far beyond it. He was one of first modern jazz musicians to appear on TV, made the cover of Time magazine, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also recorded for major record labels, including Riverside, Blue Note and Columbia. Columbia in particular was a very big deal because it had large promo budgets, gave artists advances and paid them well. In fact, according to Kelley, Monk only started earning a decent living once he signed with the label.
With Columbia behind him, Monk worked so much, and for such good money, that he could afford to send his children to expensive boarding schools in New England. He was fond of saying that he had a wife and two kids to supportand that nothing else mattered. During the rising tide of black protest in the 1960s, he stayed away from politics, rarely speaking publicly about race issues. He preferred to work and enjoy his celebrity status. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original shows that despite years of poverty, arrests, jails, mental institutions and ridicule, Monk made the right choicebut it also suggests that he worked himself to ill health and, over time, to death.
Kelley's page-turning study is a grand tribute to its subject and also, along the way, to Monk's native state of North Carolina and its lifelong importance to him. Born in 1917, Monk went north in 1922 with his mother, as part of the great black migration, settling in a cramped apartment in the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan, on West 63rd Street. Kelley's opening chapter is titled "My Mother Didn't Want Me To Grow Up in North Carolina."
But Monk, the author relates, was never far from his roots. In New York, his mother, other transplanted relatives, and some of his neighbors cooked Carolina cuisine and Monk always loved to play "Carolina Moon." But the connection was most evident in the company he kept in the recording studio and on the road. Fellow Carolina emigrants he enjoyed working with included drummers Max Roach, Albert "Tootie" Heath and Billy Kaye, saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Charlie Rouse and Paul Jeffrey, and bassist Percy Heath. The most momentous partnership, however, was with saxophonist John Coltrane.
Kelley mistakenly states that Coltrane was born and reared in High Point, Carolina, but it's a rare and minor error. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Originalwhich includes photographs and 100 pages of notesis highly recommended. It's the story of a supreme survivor, who refused to abandon his principles in search of the American dream. Monk chose rather to achieve that dream through dedicating himself to his art. And he succeeded. He absolutely deserves the title American original, and his legacy and his example deserve to be cherished.