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Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk by Leslie Gourse

“Beyond the music, what else is there?” So replied Nellie Monk when asked by writers for information about her famously reticent husband Thelonious. It’s a question all biographers of musicians have to confront. In the case of Monk, who spoke mainly in the language of tones, it requires gathering information from others who knew him. Leslie Gourse did get people to talk, and the best parts of her biography are comments from family members and friends inside Monk’s sphere. They show sides of Monk the public rarely saw: a quiet family man fond of pranks and games, proud of his achievements, yet also plagued by serious psychological problems compounded by excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol. The picture gets bleaker over the years, culminating in Monk’s near decade-long withdrawal into silence before he died in 1982 at the age of 64.

Gourse believes in laying all her cards on the table, quoting those she interviewed for pages at a time and reproducing large sections of previously published articles. Yet for all the information she collected, her portrait of Monk turns out a familiar one: the lonely, tortured Romantic genius who lived for art. This image of Monk has always prevailed in the popular press, from the “High Priest of Bebop” promotional campaign devised by Blue Note records in the late 1940s to the “Loneliest Monk” Time cover story by Barry Farrell in 1964. Gourse may supply more details than earlier writers, but she delivers a conventional interpretation of her unconventional subject.

Gourse also has little new to say about Monk’s music. She lets other critics and musicians offer their views, keeping her own description minimal-“‘Round Midnight,” for example, is “ineffably haunting” and Criss Cross is “happy, pretty and swinging, though dissonant and driving.”

Straight, No Chaser documents Monk’s career and compiles opinions about his work. A critical English-language biography of this major 20th-century musician has yet to appear.

Originally Published