Book Review: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D.G. Kelley (New York: Free Press, 2009): 588 pages; hardcover, $30; paperback, $18.

Bebop was new and controversial when, in September 1947, writer-photographer Bill Gottlieb profiled an obscure jazz pianist for Down Beat magazine. The story, which appeared just before Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917–1982) turned 30, called him an "elusive" figure "few have ever seen."

Then Lorraine Lion, the wife of Blue Note Records' Alfred Lion, began to tout Monk's first releases on the label. Her hyperbolic prose portrayed him as a man "surrounded by an aura of mystery . . . a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him." Ms. Lion anointed Monk the "High Priest of Bebop."

Predictably, the press followed in lockstep. Journalists fixated on Monk's appearance, and the bop musician with the goatee, dark glasses, and beret became a cartoon stereotype. They stressed his eccentric behavior, which included "sleeplessness [and] fits of obsessive creativity" that in fact might have been early symptoms of bipolar disorder. As Robin D.G. Kelley comments in this rigorously researched biography, "Monk became a novelty, marketed to the public for his strangeness—his name, his music, his bodily gestures, his famous non-verbal communication, his unpredictability."

Kelley, a University of Southern California professor and seasoned music writer, decries the apotheosis of Monk as "a kind of mystic [whose] reputation for lateness, unreliability, and drunkenness only added to his image as an eccentric." He sees this characterization as simplistic, and feels it demeans a man who was "very much of the world . . . engaged and fascinated with his surroundings."

This highly commendable book, which Kelley notes took 14 years to complete, attempts to counter the caricature of Thelonious Monk with a far more comprehensive picture. Kelley relied in part on the assistance of Monk's family members, who seem to have spoken to him candidly and given him access to private source material. As his introduction promises, he presents "not just [Monk], or his music [but] the folks who shaped him," a panorama of "musical kith and kin."

An especially luminous figure hovers above the crowd, a guardian angel of jazz musicians. Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter (Nica to her friends) was a scion of the English branch of the illustrious Rothschild banking clan, and a granddaughter of the first Lord Rothschild. She was decorated for service to the Free French forces during World War II, then traded a life as the wife of a titled European diplomat for one among American jazz aristocrats. Nica aided her musician friends with everything from groceries and rent money to lavish gifts, including a Cadillac for Art Blakey and a Buick for Monk.

In 1922, when Monk was four years old, he journeyed with his mother and two siblings from North Carolina to a cousin's apartment on Manhattan's western edge, a stone's throw from where Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts now stands. He would live in a featureless housing project there for most of his 64 years. He began piano lessons at age 11, played classical compositions, and developed a special affinity for Chopin and Rachmaninoff. So much for the misconception that Monk had a limited musical background, a fallacy accepted even by Bill Evans, who said his fellow pianist lacked "exposure to the Western classical music tradition."

Already earning something from his music, Monk decided not to finish high school, which he rarely attended anyway, and soon embarked on a lengthy tour of the nation as part of a group that accompanied a female evangelist. Though little is known about this period, the young pianist was spotted in Kansas City playing jazz in his off hours. After some two years away, he returned to New York.

In 1940, Kelley recounts, Monk "found a hospitable community of like-minded musicians hanging out at a club inside the Cecil Hotel on 118th and St. Nicholas"—Minton's Playhouse, a Harlem nightspot soon to be renowned for its jam sessions. Gig by gig, recording by recording, Kelley conscientiously follows his subject from that churning fountainhead of bop to the doldrums of emotional decline.

Monk's singular approach to the music he performed and composed should have made him wealthy, yet the career that Kelley documents in such painstaking detail alternately chugged ahead and sputtered. It's supremely ironic that this great jazz artist's innovative harmonic language and other contributions to an art form in which inventiveness is crucial remained beyond the ken of so many listeners for so long.

Monk's life overflowed with strain: money worries when he wasn't earning enough, and hassles over unpaid taxes when he was; drug problems that led to jail time and suspension of his cabaret card, a license to work in New York City nightclubs; and bipolar disorder, which his unusual behavior had hinted at for years before it dramatically burst forth just after Christmas 1956, when Monk was in a minor auto accident. He emerged from his car and silently stared at nothing. He spent the next three weeks in Bellevue Hospital.

In the early 1970s, Monk retreated to Nica's house in Hackensack, New Jersey, where she and Monk's wife, Nellie, cared for him during a decade of withdrawal. Even then, the man long considered reticent was not entirely silent. When, in 1976, Columbia University's radio station devoted a broadcast to him and a commentator deemed his music extraordinary despite his "playing the wrong notes on the piano," Monk phoned in a message: "Tell the guy on the air, 'The piano ain't got no wrong notes.'"

In 1983, the year after Monk died, New York City renamed a short stretch of W. 63rd Street after him. It was his home turf, tucked between Lincoln Center and the Hudson, and it lacked the polish that by then had been thickly applied to many nearby blocks. The gritty streetscape made the tribute all the more fitting. Thelonious Monk, whose musicianship blossomed so brightly for more than three decades, didn't sprout in a crystal wine glass.—David Lander