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

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John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot, 1957
L to R: John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot, 1957 (photo: Don Schlitten)

In this engaging and important biography, Robin D.G. Kelley debunks several myths about Thelonious Monk, around whom there has always been plenty of mystery and misinformation. There are way too many untruths to list here. But consider these: Monk was an eccentric hermit who was out of touch with the real world; Monk was a primitive genius who had little knowledge or affection for serious music; Monk danced onstage because he was crazy; Monk was irresponsible and never on time for gigs.

Kelley deals with each of these misconceptions, or in some cases exaggerations, in the course of the narrative, but does not get bogged down with score-settling or revisionism. (Myth debunking only goes so far.) What matters most is that Kelley has fashioned a riveting life story out of his extensive research and interviews. Given unprecedented access to Monk’s immediate and extended family and their personal archives of documents, recordings and photos, Kelley tells the story of the man first and the music second, although in the case of a musical giant like Monk, it’s extremely hard to separate the two. Perhaps more important than learning what isn’t true about Monk, we learn plenty about the pianist-composer that is true: that he craved commercial success and desperately wanted a hit song; that he was devoted, both personally and professionally, to the masters of stride piano, like James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith; that he was deeply connected to his family and community; that he was politically aware and active; that he very much resented how his name was often excluded when credit was passed around for birthing bebop; that his wife Nellie and longtime friend and patron Nica de Koenigswarter were very close friends and cooperated in his care.

There is much to absorb about Monk from this substantial work of biography. Taking us methodically yet gracefully from Monk’s birth in North Carolina in 1917 all the way to his death of cerebral hemorrhage in New York City in 1982, Kelley brings Monk the man into clear focus without resorting to hagiography. Kelley’s love for his subject is exhibited only in the rich detail he invests in the tale. Monk, whom Kelley believes had bi-polar disorder, was not without faults and missteps, and Kelley does not gloss over some of the more difficult problems he and his family faced, such as repeated hospitalizations for mental illness and various health issues. Kelley adeptly balances technically sophisticated yet accessible descriptions of Monk’s music with political and social context. It’s no easy task to be a musicologist and historian. Many biographies of music figures focus on one area at the expense of the other.

My only bone to pick with Kelley is his occasional reference to himself and his own research, particularly when explaining why some questions remain unanswered. It’s an understandable tact, but it disrupts the narrative that otherwise stays very much in the moment with its subject. That’s a very minor quibble with an otherwise brilliant book that is, without question, one of the finest jazz biographies of the last decade. I look forward to reading it again and again in the coming years. In the meantime, I’ll go back and listen to Monk’s music with a deeper understanding of the man who created it.

Originally Published