Synopses & Reviews
"The piano ain't got no wrong notes!" So ranted Thelonious Sphere Monk, who proved his point every time he sat down at the keyboard. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of bebop and establishing Monk as one of America's greatest composers. Yet throughout much of his life, his musical contribution took a backseat to tales of his reputed behavior.
Writers tended to obsess over Monk's hats or his proclivity to dance on stage. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors, he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or childlike. But these labels tell us little about the man or his music.
In the first book on Thelonious Monk based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, as well as on a decade of prodigious research, prize-winning historian Robin D. G. Kelley brings to light a startlingly different Thelonious Monk — witty, intelligent, generous, politically engaged, brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Indeed, Thelonious Monk is essentially a love story. It is a story of familial love, beginning with Monk's enslaved ancestors from whom Thelonious inherited an appreciation for community, freedom, and black traditions of sacred and secular song. It is about a doting mother who scrubbed floors to pay for piano lessons and encouraged her son to follow his dream. It is the story of romance, from Monk's initial heartbreaks to his lifelong commitment to his muse, the extraordinary Nellie Monk. And it is about his unique friendship with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a scion of the famous Rothschild family whose relationship with Monk and other jazz musicians has long been the subject of speculation and rumor. Nellie, Nica, and various friends and family sustained Monk during the long periods of joblessness, bipolar episodes, incarceration, health crises, and other tragic and difficult moments.
Above all, Thelonious Monk is the gripping saga of an artist's struggle to make it without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz's most original composer.
"'Elusive, mysterious, strange, eccentric, weird, genius' the legend of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk began early in his career, propagated by supporters and detractors in equal measure. Kelley (Race Rebels) breaks down the mythology, taking great pains to establish, for example, that Monk, far from being an untutored savant, was intimately familiar with classical and popular music. Every step of Monk's musical journey is teased out in meticulous detail, from his childhood piano lessons to his groundbreaking half-year run headlining at New York's Five Spot, along with behind-the-scenes stories from the recording sessions for classic albums like Brilliant Corners and Monk's Music. Kelley also explains Monk's most notorious behaviors stony silences when confronted in public, exuberant dancing during concerts as the outward signs of a bipolar disorder that went unrecognized for much of his life, with immeasurable impact on his career. (He was often unable to even play in New York jazz clubs because his reputation precluded him from getting a work license from city authorities.) Sometimes, the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, but whether he's charting the highs or lows of Monk's emotional swings, Kelley rarely strays from his central theme of an extraordinary talent pushing against the boundaries of his art." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"There is a much-quoted line in Charlotte Zwerin's 1988 documentary Straight, No Chaser
in which Monk is told that he is in an encyclopedia alongside popes and presidents, and is therefore famous. As he absorbs this information he is patently aware that he is being filmed. His response? 'I'm famous. Ain't that a bitch?'" David Yaffe, The Nation read the entire Nation review
The first full biography of Thelonious Monk, written by a brilliant historian,with full access to the family's archives and with dozens of interviews.
About the Author
Robin D.G. Kelley is a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. From 2003-2006, he was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia Univeristy. From 1994-2003, he was a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University as well the chairman of NYU's history department from 2002-2003.
One of the youngest tenured professors in a full academic discipline — at the age of 32 — Kelley has spent most of his career exploring American and African-American history with a particular emphasis on African-American musical culture, including jazz and hip-hop.