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The Thelonious Monk Reader by Rob van der Bliek

After the publication of intriguing anthologies such as Mark Tucker’s The Duke Ellington Reader and Todd Selbert’s The Art Pepper Companion, this collection of writings about Thelonious Monk, dating from 1947 to 1999, is a disappointment. Part of the reason is Monk himself. He had few close friends to recount stories about him; he seldom gave interviews and he said little of interest when he was interviewed; after his youth, he seems to have led a very quiet private life apart from the music he created. Apart, too, from the occasional psychological crisis, for he was a fragile personality who became more fragile over the years, as he ingested many drugs, during the last decade of his life he abandoned music and most human contact. What did Monk and his family think and feel? Nobody says-there is no intimacy at all in this book.

If you’ve read Leslie Gourse’s valuable Monk biography Straight, No Chaser-and if you haven’t, by all means read it first-this book adds little about Monk the man and his career. It includes important articles such as Peter Keepnews’ “Young Monk,” early Paul Bacon and Nat Hentoff pieces, the 1964 Time magazine article, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 description of Monk at the Five Spot, some of Orrin Keepnews’ reminiscences and Whitney Balliett’s brief New Yorker memorial. The early reviews of his recordings and performances are interesting for what they show of the reviewers’ misunderstandings. It’s sad but significant that among musical associates, only Mary Lou Williams and Dizzy Gillespie discuss Monk, and only briefly. A number of journalists, though, write about what an enigmatic or weird character he was. The Bill Gottlieb and Albert Goldman pieces are annoying as well as worthless, and some others, including most of the interviews, could also be omitted. Gerald Early’s essay is provocative. He tries to be sympathetic, but he has something to dispute in nearly every paragraph, especially his attempted psychoanalysis of Monk. The very first printed discussion of Monk’s music, a 1944 piece in The Music Dial by none other than Herbie Nichols, is not in this book-shame on van der Bliek for including only a one-paragraph quote from this major article.

Discussion of how Monk’s music developed would be welcome, and in fact there’s an excellent analysis of his classic 1947-to-’52 Blue Notes by Max Harrison. But the almost equally important 1952-to-’54 Prestiges are largely ignored in this anthology, although Martin Williams wrote eloquent liner notes for some LP reissues of them. By the late 1950s Monk was playing in public and recording regularly, but seldom composing anymore. There’s no discussion of Monk’s development through the 1950s Riversides, the 1960s Columbias or his last years before he withdrew from music in 1973.

Monk was such an original and dramatic artist that he inspired much intelligent, useful critical commentary; van der Bliek reprints some. Noted critical essays by Andre Hodeir, Michael James, Williams, and Gene Santoro are here, along with Gunther Schuller’s appropriately critical review of the first (1959) Town Hall concert. But Schuller’s much more important overview of Monk’s career, from the Jazz Review, is omitted, as are additional important Harrison and Williams essays, and I’m sure there are other useful writings that I don’t know about. In conclusion Ran Blake offers a fine analysis of Monk’s style and Scott DeVeaux, while pursuing lesser academic matters, also shows how Monk achieved his singular harmonic impact.

Were van der Bliek’s choices arbitrary? Couldn’t he get permission to reprint some of the important writings? Is he unfamiliar with some of the Monk literature? Even if the good parts are quite good, this could have been a better, fatter book.

Originally Published