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.
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.