I’m only up to page 138 — which is the year 1948 — in Robin D.G. Kelley’s monumental THELONIOUS MONK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL (Free Press, 2009, 588 pages) but I had to write something about this book now rather than waiting sedately until I finish it.  Kelley doesn’t need my enthusiasm, judging by the reviews and media coverage, but his book is seriously worthwhile.monk

It’s clearly the product of fourteen-plus years of research, and the result is thorough without being overwhelming.  Writing about Monk isn’t easy: previous studies have tended to overemphasize his “weirdness,” his apparent reclusiveness, his tendency towards gnomic utterances — as if saying, “Both the man and his music come from the same unreachable, inexplicable sources.”  But Kelley went to the most logical sources — the Monk family and friends — so that the portrait we get is not of someone strange and threatening, but the loving husband and parent.  This may seem a terrible cliche by now, but it’s a relief from those books that equate Genius with Madness or at least with Cruelties.  I find those equations wearisome.  Although Kelley doesn’t invent scenes of Monk going to Home Depot or being a secret suburbanite, it is reassuring to find that in some deep ways, he made sense — if not always to the prying world outside, at least to those who loved him.  (This demythologizing is welcome.) 

Kelley has also had the benefit of being able to speak at length with Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, so that the book becomes far more than the record of a musician’s life — which often follows a predictable trajectory: early encounters with the music, youthful influences, first success, and then a boring chronicle of gigs and concerts.  About twenty percent of the anecdotes are familiar, but the rest are new and often greatly revealing.  Kelley, a jazz pianist himself, gets under the surface of Monk’s music without being overly technical.

He also grapples with two other issues: the role of the media in the Forties (often the role of people who earnestly wanted to make sure Monk received wide coverage) in making Monk “the High Priest of Bebop,” thus peculiar — because peculiarity brings people to clubs more than benign normality.  He has also faces the larger — and painful — question of Monk’s mental illness, or bipolar disorder, or chemical imbalance . . . call it what you will — honestly rather than speculatively.  I haven’t yet read enough of the book to see how he takes on the unanswerable question, “If Monk had been medicated early, if he had been a compliant patient, if more had been known, would he have been happier?  And would we have those astonishing records?”

Reviewers have to complain about something so that readers know they are attempting to be objective, so I have two Official Complaints.  Kelley doesn’t mention that Louis Armstrong made influential records of JUST A GIGOLO and BYE AND BYE — material that receives some emphasis in the text.  And, perhaps in his desire to be unbuttoned, friendly rather than academic, Kelly is occasionally a bit too casual, too slangy for me.  Monk may have called it “reefer,” and Bessie Smith did, but Kelley’s hipness rings false. 

But I am a seriously finicky reader . . . and if these are the only things I could find to complain about, it has to be a beautifully written and carefully documented book.  Thrilling, even, in its diligence, intelligence, and compassion.

7 responses to “MONK, KNOWN AT LAST

  1. Pingback: MONK, KNOWN AT LAST

  2. very nice, I’ll be sure to check this one.
    Thx for the review so far 🙂

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  4. I understand why demythologizing the man can be important in order to can understanding and access of him. I agree, he should not be a strange and threatening figure. But after we can understand him I think it would be good to return our attention to his oddities–which may have taken on a certain familiarity within us at this point–just to bring back that mystery and awe. After all he is a legend and deserves to be treated as such. I think the key to demythologizing is to allow us to realize that any and all of us can be legendary. But that should not make the legend seem any less amazing. Awe is experienced in part through mystery.

  5. Dear Langston,

    It would take an effort larger than Kelley’s to make Monk seem everyday or plain, and I wouldn’t want that, either. And the music — the music! — remains awe-inspiring no matter what. But Kelley is focusing on revealing the human creator sometimes subsumed by media fantasies thought essential to the selling of an artist — and that focusing is a rewarding enterprise. See what you think when you’ve finished the book!

  6. Muddy Waters & all the blues guys of a certain vintage called it “reefer” as well.

  7. I only read a bit of this book before giving it to my father for his birthday (I’ll get my own copy soon). I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the San Juan Hill neighborhood in which Monk grew up and lived. I related to much of it, having grown up on West 65th Street, though at a later time (1960s, 70s). My father thinks that Monk’s piano teacher lived in our building.

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