Must be Monk’s time. After a long dry spell, three books on this musician have appeared in the U.S. within the last year: Thomas Fitterling’s introductory study, Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, first issued in Germany in 1987; Leslie Gourse’s trade biography Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk; and now the concisely-titled Monk by the young jazz pianist Laurent de Wilde, originally published in France in 1996.
Resembling its subject, Monk is bold, brilliant, original. De Wilde has invented a new literary genre for jazz studies that weaves together biography, criticism, fiction and autobiography. A chronological survey of Monk’s life and music forms the basic structure, but along the way de Wilde takes many twists and detours, offering personal observations about the jazz world, delving into musical issues like tempo, register and rhythm sections, and musing about the varied characters who moved in Monk’s orbit. Driving the narrative forward is the author’s passion for the music. His enthusiasm for Monk is contagious, at times overwhelming. This is a writer who loves exclamation points! And uses them in consecutive sentences! But de Wilde is also a thoughtful observer who finds imaginative ways to translate musical responses into verbal description. At one point he likens Monk’s complex keyboard maneuvers to “playing chess in 3-D” or “trying to herd fleas together.” He compares Monk to Brancusi and Heraclites, also to a sherpa “stepping across deep chasms on an unsteady bridge made of knotted vines.” Analyzing one of Monk’s introductions, de Wilde recalls a scene from a film in which Buster Keaton nervously leaps off a diving board to create “a ballet which blends his momentum and his fear of falling.”
At times de Wilde stumbles. He can be patronizing on the subject of women, crude in some of his characterizations, and insulting in his chauvinism: “It often takes the eye of a foreigner, a European, an ancestor, to recognize genius in originality and beauty in strangeness.” He can be too nonchalant about documentation. “I couldn’t verify the story,” he admits in one section, “but as long as it seems plausible, why not accept it without quibbling?” He can let extreme admiration for Monk cloud his critical faculties. On saxophonist Charlie Rouse: “If Thelonious chose him, then that’s the way it was meant to be. He wasn’t forced to hire him, and he knew what he was doing.”
Well, blame it on his youth. For in spite of such missteps de Wilde manages to capture in vivid prose the singular sound and defiant spirit of Monk’s music. In a way, his book bears witness to the passionate engagement with jazz that often begins at a tender age and can last a lifetime. Fired up by the experience of listening to Monk, de Wilde burns with the zeal of an evangelist committed to sharing the good news with others.
Even nonbelievers will be touched by the musical intelligence and loving devotion he brings to the mission.