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

Best jazz biography of the year without a doubt!

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a highly-anticipated, abundantly-documented, easy-to-read, page-turning, scholarly book about the up-and-down, roller coaster life of Rocky Mount, North Carolina native, master musician Thelonious Sphere Monk. The author, Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of History and American Studies, at The University of Southern California, writes as if he is a fly on the wall, describing very personal incidents and things that seemingly only an insider would know about. It took fourteen years to complete this sometimes humorous, mostly grim, chronicle of a full-time jazz musician and his journey to support his wife, Nellie, and his two children, Thelonious, Jr. (Toot) and Barbara (Boo Boo).

Kelley calls it an “act of love.” But, it is fairly obvious that it is much more than that. It is an act to set the record straight, to dispel the negative stereotypes of what being a working jazz musician means and what better way to do that than by writing about the life of a genius whose career showed one could support a family doing what he did best—composing , creating and performing jazz music. Monk’s life clearly proved that preparation, discipline and a strong will are the keys to securing and maintaining a livelihood in America and that being a jazz musician is no different than any other occupation. In other words, “play” jazz is the wrong word to use when describing what full-time jazz musicians do. It should be called and it is “work.”

Kelley was very fortunate when he started to write this biography because he got the blessings of Monk’s son, Thelonious, Jr., better known as T.S. Monk, who introduced him to his father’s family and friends who were more than willing to grant him interviews that no other researchers had been able to conduct in previous books on Monk. This is not the first effort to define, analyze and magnify the life of the high priest of jazz music, who was known as an eccentric , mysterious person who no one seemed to understand. Most observers passed him off as a nut, a mentally disturbed person, who abused alcohol and drugs. They were convinced of that when he would stop playing his piano during a concert and started to dance . Monk was also known as a person who would not speak for days . He had serious mood swings, when he would be jovial one minute and depressed the next. So, it is no surprise when Kelley revealed that Monk was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder and that he was heavily medicated with thorazine most of his life. Kelley also found out something that the others didn’t: in 1941, Thelonious ‘s father, Thelonious , Sr., had been committed to the “colored,” insane asylum, at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina with the same condition, and he died there in 1963.

The implication is that his mental state was inherited from his father, and that maybe the best way to describe Monk would be as a functioning nut, who went to work just like everybody else, except he had a lot more fun doing it. Kelley found out that Monk’s dancing was his way of conducting his band to let them know that they were playing the music just right. According to some of his band members, he only got up to dance when the music was to his liking, otherwise he remained seated. They also said that Monk always said that jazz is dance music. His periods of silence, the book explains, were because, most of the time, he didn’t have anything to say. He preferred to let his music speak for him. As for him being a crazy, Thelonious stated on numerous occasions that it was to his advantage to make people think he was crazy, so they would leave him alone to have more time to be creative and do what he loved doing more than anything in the world, something he had been doing since he was five-years-old, and that was playing the piano . There was no question, from reading this book , that playing the piano and composing was an obsession he mastered to perfection, one that would yield gems and standards like “Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Ruby My Dear,” and “Pannonica,” which he wrote for his dear friend and patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. His works have become the classics that almost every beginner must learn to navigate and are clear examples of why he is rightly called an American cultural icon who helped to vastly change this country’s worldwide perception as a place that doesn’t have a culture.

Some of Monk’s noteworthy achievements included being chosen downbeat magazine best jazz pianist for years; touring extensively in America , Europe, Australia and Japan; being one of first jazz musicians to appear on TV; having his photo on the cover of Time magazine and receiving the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship . He also recorded with the major record labels, including Riverside, Blue Note and Columbia, which to most struggling jazz musicians was a very big deal because Columbia had plenty of money for promotions, gave advances and paid well. In fact, according to the biography, Monk really started earning a decent living once he signed with Columbia. The publicity from Columbia and the press enabled him to perform extensively on the club and festival circuits, throughout the East coast, Midwest and the West coast, and he did more overseas tours. He was working so much that he was able to send his children to boarding schools in New England, where they received a much better education than they would have in the schools of their native New York City. Monk was always fond of saying that he had a wife and two kids to support and that nothing else mattered. During the 1960s, he basically stayed away from politics and rarely spoke out too loudly about race relations during those turbulent times . He preferred to work, compose and enjoy his celebrity status as a living legend. Monk: An American Original, clearly shows that after years of hard times, which included abject poverty, arrests, jail time, mental institution stays, and being ignored, he made the right choice, but, it also shows that he worked himself to ill health and eventually death.

Still, this excellent, flowing book, with his balanced mix of academic and hip street language, and which includes photographs, a hundred pages of notes, selected compositions and recordings of Monk, is a timely and revealing accomplishment and a fitting and well-deserved tribute, not only to Monk, but also to his native state of North Carolina. Thelonious, who was born in 1917, left the state with his doting mother, Barbara, as a part of the great black migration, in 1922, and settled in a cramped small apartment in the San Juan Hill section (West 63rd Street) of Manhattan. Although the first chapter is titled: “My Mother Didn’t Want Me To Grow Up in North Carolina,” he was never far away from his birthplace. His mother, his transplanted relatives and some of his neighbors cooked Carolina cuisine and he loved to play “Carolina Moon.”

The Carolina jazz connection is quite evident throughout Monk: An American Original. It manifests itself when Monk played with drummer Max Roach, a New Land, North Carolina native, saxophonist Lou Donaldson of Badin, North Carolina, Wilson, North Carolina native drummer Billy Kaye and the great bassist Percy Heath, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, on club and record dates. It can be found when Monk performed with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, whose parents were born in Lenoir, North Carolina, and Albert “Tootie” Heath, whose father, Percy, Sr. was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, and when he used saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, the former head of Duke University’s jazz studies department, in his ensemble when he performed at the now defunct Frog and Nightgown Jazz Club, in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1970. But the most righteous and fruitful connection to North Carolina ,revealed in the book, was the joy and the mutual pleasure that Monk got when he worked with saxophonist John Coltrane, who was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, and who graduated from William Penn High School in High Point, North Carolina. Kelley mistakenly stated that Coltrane was born and reared in High Point, but that’s a minor mistake in this highly-recommened, very-well done, story of a supreme survivor who met his trails and tribulations with determination and vigor, and who definitely earned the title of an American original and an extremely, focused and dedicated artist who refused to give up the American dream of a better life for himself, his family , friends , fans, and for those he loved and who continue to adore him.

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