Review of 'Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original' by Robin D.G. Kelley

The one book that had been sitting in the "must-read" pile on my nightstand far too long was Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.  Truth is, I was saving it for the laziest, most pleasant days of my summer break, as Monk's records and I go way back to when I was 10 or 11 years old and I discovered 1968's Underground in a relative's old record collection.  The cover alone was some far out shit, still more the music inside.  When I got older and got good enough on the guitar to buy my own fake book, I took a look at the lead sheets for Monk's tunes -- something like "Well, You Needn't," just up and down the neck, right -- and figured I could learn the song.  Well, I could play the melody and the chords all right, but the whole thing sounded like a dog's lunch.  In other words, a mess.
     As Kelly's outstanding biography makes clear, Monk as a man and as a composer was his own man -- bold, original, uncompromising, and rooted so deeply in place that when you encountered his oeuvre, you had to go him, because he wasn't going to come to you.  Weighing in -- appendixes, notes, and index -- at almost 600 pages, The Life and Times is an appropriately weighty treatment of a musical figure whose center of gravity continues to be affecting the musical orbits of all planetary bodies in motion.
     As a public service of the first order, Kelley dispels the persistent myths of Monk as a savant, as a mystic, as hopelessly eccentric, as anything less than a full man who took his art and his independence seriously.  Along the way, readers will also get to the bottom of the crooked and discriminatory cabaret card system in New York City and the bizarro world of musicians' unions and music copyrights.  Tied up in this, as well, is a brutal picture of how race factored into the criminal justice/mental health system in the US, and how musicians who were underpaid and overworked often kept themselves going with chemicals -- in Monk's case, alcohol, nicotine, "vitamin shots" from Dr. Robert, and the occasional recreational drug.  All these impediments -- bad press, insufficient health care, crooked businessmen, and run-of-the-mill substance abuse -- didn't keep Monk from being himself and writing his songs.
     Monk was a family man and a neighborhood guy, brought from North Carolina to New York City in 1922 by a mother who preferred the opportunities of the urban north to those of the rural south.  In the Monks apartment in San Juan Hill, there was a piano, and Thelonious started playing when he was six, taking lessons across all kinds of musical genres, to the point where, in his late teens, he was skilled enough to tour the nation playing keyboard for a traveling preacher.  The picture Kelley paints of Monk is of a young man who is deeply interested in music, provincial in the way that New Yorkers can be, and guided by some inner compass of confidence and strength, no doubt instilled in his by mother, with whom he was close until the day she died.
     As the 30s give way to the 40s and swing bands give way to bebop, we find Monk at the forefront of the music, in conversation via the aural tradition of jazz -- Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Monk all had a hand in creating the high modern sound.  But we see that the extrovert, Diz, and the axtrovert, Bird, are the ones who got much of the credit, while Monk, who built the chair for everyone to sit on, had to wait a decade or so for people to understand what he actually did.  Until then, Monk, who was clearly introverted and let his piano do the talking -- however clunky and dissonant it might sound to the unschooled ear.  When bad luck and rumors prevent him from working in New York, Monk could be found hanging out at his apartment in the city, jamming with Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, teaching the new harmonics to anyone willing to listen and who could keep up.  By the mid-50s, as the mainstream catches up with Monk, we find him able to make a living some years, but the grind of poverty, of keeping his family together, of the ever-creeping swings of his untreated bipolar disorder -- all those factors make even the broad success and popularity of the 1960s a bittersweet affair.
     When Monk made his last public performance in 1975, even as the importance of his music was steadily growing, he had been retired from life as a working musician for a few years already.  By the time of his death in 1982 -- folks might forget how long the silence was at he end of his life -- he had retreated to the second floor of his friend and patron Nica de Koenigswarter's home in Weehauken, New Jersey, where his wife Nellie would visit most days and Monk would reside, immaculately dressed, watching TV for the most part, or simply doing nothing. All that music, and then that long echoing coda.
     Kelley doesn't miss a note of it -- not the personal microcosm of Monk's day-to-day life, and not the middle ground of music and gigs and records.  In fact, few biographies present such a thorough and thoughtful chronicle of any musician's career in making music, particularly in the world of jazz, where a change in personnel means a change in the music. Most impressive is the manner in which Kelley frames Monk's life in the context of the struggle of African-Americans to create a space to make art (and a life) with dignity and integrity.  The historical facts of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and the triumph over those factors is sometimes foregrounded in Kelley's narrative, but never in a manner that is forced or preachy.  The author is spot-on from beginning to end.
     Along with Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life, Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is one of the two best jazz books of last year, and I'm sorry on both counts that it took me until this year to get around to reading them.  The good news is that Kelley's book will be out in paper next month (as will Teachout's, this week) so you can get the jazz lover in your life an early Christmas present.  Actually, do them a favor, and get them two.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

No comments: