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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

by Robin D. G. Kelley


A review by David Yaffe

"You know people have tried to put me off as being crazy," said Thelonious Sphere Monk. "Sometimes it's to your advantage for people to think you're crazy." He ought to have known. Monk was one of only a few jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine (others include Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis) and was celebrated as a genius by everyone who mattered. Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins could not have imagined (or transmuted) the language of jazz without him. Yet the pianist was also constantly underpaid and underappreciated, rejected as too weird on his way up and dismissed as old hat once he made his improbable climb. Performer and composer, eccentric and original, Monk was shrouded in mystery throughout his life. Not an especially loquacious artist (at least with journalists), he left most of his expression in his inimitable work, as stunning and unique as anyone's in jazz -- second only to Duke Ellington's and perched alongside Charles Mingus's.

He did leave a paper trail, though, and Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive, necessary and, as of now, definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original offers a Baedeker of sorts. Jazz may be filled with fascinating characters, but it has inspired relatively few exemplary full-length biographies. (Among the exceptions are David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; John Chilton's Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz; Linda Kuehl's unfinished With Billie, assembled by Julia Blackburn after Kuehl's death; and John Szwed's So What: The Life of Miles Davis.) Kelley is, in many ways, a rarity. While many music journalists write amateur history, Kelley is an eminent historian at the University of Southern California. Rarer still, though his earlier books (including Race Rebels and Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!) examine race from a neo-Marxist perspective, his thinking took an apparent turn during the fourteen years he spent on the Monk project. While discussions of race and racism are recurrent -- how could they not be in a biography of a mentally ill black genius in the middle of the twentieth century? -- Kelley shows admirable restraint by never addressing politics beyond their appropriate role or treating Monk's life as a political fable. Monk, a black man from humble origins, succeeded at becoming a bourgeois artist with a wealthy, devoted patron, and he is never criticized for it. Unlike Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and many others, Monk did not enlist in the struggles for freedom or power. Music and daily life proved to be difficult enough.

Kelley has created a lush portrait of the private, off-camera Monk, one it would have been difficult to paint without the unprecedented access he had to the Monk family, including Nellie, Monk's widow, who provided substantial information before her death in 2002, and their son, Toot (otherwise known as TS), who opened up the archives once trust had been established. Kelley shows us the man who, when he wasn't getting work in the early 1950s, played Mr. Mom. He shows us the musician who, when he wasn't at home, needed some sort of neighborhood watch to make sure he didn't drift in the wrong direction. It took a village. He had a family who tolerated his eccentricities and never pressured him to take a day job. Mingus had to work at the post office when freelance work was hard to come by; no matter how lean things got, Monk was able to work at the eighty-eight keys in his living room.

Born in North Carolina in 1917 and raised in the predominantly African-American San Juan Hill neighborhood on what is now Manhattan's Upper West Side, Monk went from obscurity to notoriety to seclusion -- from glorious, hard-fought music to inscrutable silence. At times he boomeranged from Bellevue to the Village Vanguard to Rikers Island to the 30th Street Studios of Columbia Records and back again. But one thing was for sure: in a certain scene, among a certain set, in boho corners of the 1950s, crazy was that year's model. "Crazy, man!" was the rallying cry of the Beats, parodied by Norman Mailer, who nevertheless believed, as a Bellevue alum himself, the hype about hip. Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath did stints in McLean Hospital; Allen Ginsberg, who saw the best minds of his generation starving, hysterical, naked, possessed a Bellevue pedigree; and John Berryman proclaimed himself a demented priest. Sanity was supposedly for squares.

Yet for all its colloquial power, crazy (or even "Crazy, man!") is not in the DSM-IV. We have not a shopworn adjective but a clinical diagnosis for what ailed Monk. He suffered, as Kelley explains, from bipolar disorder, although his illness was misdiagnosed and mistreated throughout the latter part of his career. Like other black jazz musicians (Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus), Monk was more likely to be called schizophrenic, or just plain nuts, than were blue bloods like Cal Lowell. Monk took "vitamin shots" from a "Doctor Feelgood" who dosed his patients with amphetamines. Kelley ventures that Monk, who alluded to his enigmatic psyche in songs like "Nutty" and "Misterioso," eventually stopped playing entirely a few years after he began taking lithium in 1972; after his final concert at Carnegie Hall (and an impromptu Fourth of July performance at Bradley's) in 1976, he hardly played or spoke until his death in 1982.

In his performing heyday -- from the late 1940s to the early '70s -- Monk could be brilliant and antisocial at the same time, reinventing jazz composition while wearing dark glasses indoors. During bass or tenor solos, he would either leave the stage altogether or dance with himself. He favored a kind of arrhythmic twirl, which he would usually complement with a counterintuitive hat; he seemed like someone giving himself the spins. Occasionally he would add a knee kick, which would make the gyrations seem intentional, or at least syncopated. Often he would just seem like the man who wasn't there, a real gone guy. But once the bass solo was over, he'd return in a rush to the piano, often with a cigarette in his mouth, and, in his most inspired moments, create a cascade of sounds so ornate and gorgeous that it was described, by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, as a "vinegary, dissonant, gothic" tone.

That description has aged better than most; Balliett was the most metaphorical of American jazz critics. For most Monk watchers, though, the man -- crazy, gifted and black -- was, above all, a metaphor. Forget about his detractors. Kelley shows with damning precision that some of Monk's most fervid advocates went down the most benighted of infantilizing or primitivist paths. Lewis Lapham, in a sympathetic 1964 profile in the Saturday Evening Post, wrote that as an "emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child's vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, laughs, walks or dances as the spirit moves him." Monk may have seemed that way to strangers, especially when he posed sitting in a child's red wagon for an album cover photo, but to truly do Monk justice one must, as Kelley has done, reconcile his eccentricities with an appreciation of the deep, original thinking present in the music. Besides, testimony from Monk's family, at least in his less gone years, presents a different portrait of an affectionate father and husband -- when he wasn't disappearing on drug runs. And while he often spoke to interviewers in laconic grunts, musicians say he sometimes talked shop with them for hours. He was complicated, flawed and progressively ill -- a more nuanced figure than the flimsy characterization of the way-out jazz cat could possibly convey.

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?"

It was indeed often a bitch to be Thelonious Monk. Because of a law that was eventually struck down by New York City Mayor John Lindsay in 1967, Monk repeatedly lost his "cabaret card." The card was a prized possession because it permitted musicians to play in establishments serving alcohol, and any cardholder who was arrested had to forfeit the golden ticket. Monk lost his repeatedly, once when he was arrested while sitting in a car with his dear friend Bud Powell, who was, according to Kelley, the one carrying heroin, but each was too loyal to the other to snitch; and once because he had the temerity, as a Negro in Jim Crow America, to demand service at a hotel in Delaware. (Monk took many police beatings for that one.) This was no way to treat a genius; it was no way to treat a human being.

Monk also felt undervalued and, of course, underpaid. The standard biography, the one the narrator delivers at the beginning of Straight, No Chaser, is that Monk attended Juilliard and helped invent bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The truth, as elucidated by Kelley, is messier. Monk never attended Juilliard; he attended New York's illustrious Stuyvesant High School but never graduated. He was not holding the piano chair at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem when bebop was being hatched, and he later fought a losing battle with Gillespie for bop ownership rights. Bop, contrary to Straight, No Chaser and Ken Burns's Jazz, was not one big happy family. Monk was the house pianist at Minton's in 1941, a few years before Parker and Gillespie created a musical revolution, and his legendary band there included the barometrically influential guitarist Charlie Christian and the drummer Kenny "Klook" Clarke. When Monk wasn't in the process of sculpting his own sound (and vital harmonic breakthroughs for bebop), he was sometimes falling asleep at the bandstand or gone altogether.

Yet even after he was let go by Minton's, at the end of 1941, he was always welcome to return, and Powell or whoever else was occupying the bench would step aside. (Powell was a former acolyte of Monk's, equally brilliant, equally original and equally mentally ill, yet another Bellevue grad.) Minton's jam sessions became dominated by marquee names like Gillespie and Parker. Even though Monk would sometimes sit in with the band, and even though they would routinely trade choruses on gestating Monk classics like "'Round Midnight," his contributions to the festivities often went uncredited. Gillespie, a consummate showman and trickster, was cannily making a name for himself. Monk had no gig, no label, nothing sacred but the integrity of his mind. After Lorraine Lion (now Gordon) dubbed him the High Priest of Bebop to publicize his 1947 debut, Genius of Modern Music, the tag would be flung back at him with withering irony by those who were not yet convinced. And when Monk played in Gillespie's band in 1946, he missed rehearsals, showed up late for gigs and eventually was fired. Monk and Gillespie would reunite on the 1971-2 Giants of Jazz tour, and by then everything seemed copacetic; the revolution was a matter of history, and it was paying decent dividends to the two titans by then.

The battle over bop's ownership rights obscures something crucial: the music Monk was writing by the mid-1940s was certifiably weirder than standard bebop. He disliked playing fast, although his fiercest partisans claimed he could play like Art Tatum if he wanted to -- just as Picasso could, if he wanted to, paint like a realist. (There is only anecdotal evidence for this claim about Monk, and he doesn't really need it.) In the midst of his angular melodies and deft use of space, Monk's cascades were whole tone flourishes, like a ragged stepchild to Tatum's ornate runs. He got his first record deal with Alfred Lion on the fledgling Blue Note label, and the album delivered on its title, although its anemic sales showed that the genius of modern music didn't always enjoy company. The album -- bristling and raw, like its sound quality -- showcases Monk standards before they sounded inevitable, or indeed even comprehensible for those just getting used to bebop's breakneck pace. Monk jumped on chestnuts like "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "April in Paris" and pounded them with his inimitable descending cadences, translating everything he touched into a rough but not quite ready Monkian patois. By the time a companion album appeared in 1952, Monk had recorded most of what would become his songbook. After warming up the listener with a couple of recognizably bebop tunes -- up-tempo, with eighth-note melodic lines -- and bop-inflected standards, he plays as if he's leaning into the instrument with his whole body, making those eighty-eight keys into percussion instruments. His fingers are splayed, their attack as distinctive and inimitable as anyone's in jazz; within a few bars, he is instantly recognizable to any serious jazz listener.

How, between his Minton's apprenticeship in 1941 and his recording debut in 1947, did Monk become Monk? The pianist on those Minton's dates -- who can be heard, murkily, on The Early Thelonious Monk -- sounds in the neighborhood of Teddy Wilson's swing and James Johnson's stride. In between, he got fired from two illustrious piano spots, avoided military service and recorded some sides with Coleman Hawkins, the most notable swing-era star who could play with the beboppers he so vividly influenced. Monk joined Hawkins's band in 1944 and cut a few 78s with him. While Monk received no royalties for the sessions, they paid off in other ways. The format of the 78 limited each track to around three minutes, and none of Monk's tunes were used. Nevertheless, he made the most of his time. "His economical solos are full of Monkisms: whole-tone scales, dissonant clusters, and quotes from his own compositions," Kelley observes, with the attuned ear of a writer who also plays the piano, which is all but an anomaly in the world of jazz writing for the popular press. As early as 1944, these recordings, available on Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige Recordings, reveal Monk's attack, nuances and references as the motifs of "an American original."

Whether Monk was playing the music of Hawkins, Gershwin or Ellington, he acted like he owned it. When, on Genius of Modern Music, he introduced the world to "Thelonious" (a deceptively simple melodic statement), "Ruby, My Dear" (a beautiful tribute to an early flame), "Well, You Needn't," "Monk's Mood," "'Round Midnight" and -- an hommage to his former protege -- "In Walked Bud," based on the chords of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," most of the world was not ready. Parker and Gillespie were testing listeners with jazz you weren't supposed to dance to. Monk was offering music even less user-friendly: weird, rough flourishes and runs that sounded ingeniously rhythmic to his exegetes and harsh to his detractors. It's true that, unlike the so-called right-handed pianists of bop, Monk stuck with old-time stride; James Johnson, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum especially never left his vocabulary. No one hit those keys with such inimitable muscle. But in 1947 it didn't yet sound like mass entertainment. Monk called one of his final compositions "Ugly Beauty." It would be a decade until the world came around. He was in a holding pen, a period his wife, Nellie, called the "'un' years."

When Monk got his cabaret card back in 1957 after spending a few years without it, jazz had already swung from bop to postbop. Charlie Parker had died in 1955, his 34-year-old body ravaged by heroin and booze, and the bold trumpeter Clifford Brown, all of 25 years old, had perished in a car crash the following year. There was room for new gods. John Coltrane had been kicked out of Miles Davis's band for being a junkie, and while he was cleaning up -- and kicking the booze he was imbibing to stave off withdrawal symptoms -- he joined Monk's band for a six-month engagement. Coltrane would often practice the entire day in search of the perfect sound, replacing his addiction to heroin with devotion to the wood shed, and then he would get on the bandstand with Monk and continue the quest, using all of Monk's harmonic twists and turns to improvise a dense and lovely spiritual. Monk's quartet -- alongside Coltrane was Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums -- found a home at the Five Spot, a club located on the Bowery years before there was a gentrified neighborhood called the East Village. The Five Spot held poetry readings on Mondays, when Monk was off.

By the time the Five Spot gig ended, Coltrane had returned to Davis's band and would soon be too big to be a sideman, and Monk had strode out of obscurity forever. Many remember the six-month residency as a turning point when Coltrane became a legend. Sonny Rollins, whose star rose before Coltrane's, also remembered Monk as an incomparable teacher. Each of them attempted to play beyond the boundaries of what their instruments were made to do. They tried to re-create Monk's musical sense on an instrument that could only play one note at a time. Nevertheless, they honked where Monk banged, countering his cascades and circuitous phrases with their own runs, with their own personalities, in their own complementary vocabulary. They played with such speed, dexterity and obsession that each set a bar for the tenor saxophone that has still not been superseded half a century later. The grunting seer with the beret at the keys lit the match.

Once Monk saw success, he stopped composing, with the exception of Underground (1968), his final album for Columbia, which contained four new tunes, each of them as witty and idiosyncratic as ever. His illness also started manifesting itself unevenly through silence. There were times in clubs when Monk wasn't just laying out -- he was zoning out, staring into space, catatonic; weeks later, he could be his old self again. But silence was also part of Monk's aesthetic, even if, compared with the minimalism of Miles Davis (whom he was instructed not to play behind on a famous and gorgeous 1954 recording of "The Man I Love"), he was more of a maximalist, playing meandering lines and cascading whole tone runs behind his soloists and then often playing rococo countermelodies when he soloed. During much of the '60s Monk was often accused of repeating the same old tunes, even doing the same old dance. But his mind wasn't veering into autopilot. It was still in overdrive. He wasn't repeating; he was perfecting.

His '60s versions of his late '40s masterpieces sound more polished, but they are still brimming with new ideas, new approaches, new variations -- even if, at the summit of free jazz, he just continually instructed his sidemen to do nothing but swing. The term has never been empirically defined, but it has something to do with rhythmic flexibility. For Monk, it also had a dead-center aim, a musical kick in the stomach. "Bright Mississippi," recorded on Monk's Dream (1962), reveals Monk in lockstep with the tenor player Charlie Rouse, his near constant musical companion of the 1960s, bashing out quarter notes with what would sound like simplicity if they didn't hit that sweet spot of swing with such force. He even gave swinging orders to bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian when he had them on a pickup date; each of them had a more indirect route to swing in their classic stints with pianist Bill Evans and LaFaro's memorable turn with Ornette Coleman. They were indirect white guys who suddenly had to articulate something -- Monk's thing. Both of them must have emerged from their weekend stint like it was boot camp.

You can still hear joy and exuberance on Monk's The London Collection (1971), on which he was accompanied by Art Blakey. Monk hardly sounds like he's on his way out, even though it would be his final major recording session, shared, like his first, with Blakey. A few scattered performances (including Paul Jeffrey on tenor and Toot on drums) early in that decade still had, according to those who were there, the same old fire. And suddenly, it was over. Did he just go too far within himself and never return? Did his treatment for bipolar disorder somehow cure him of the music bug as well? Did he have new musical ideas trapped in a recalcitrant body? Kelley suggests the more prosaic possibility that he was suffering from an enlarged prostate.

Monk had already moved into the spacious home of the Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter (Parker's old patron) in Weehawken, New Jersey, with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline and an even more spectacular number of cats. Monk had become too much for his wife to handle, and Nellie didn't object to his relocating to a mansion across the Hudson. Pannonica inspired a Monk ballad of the same name, but there is no evidence that they were lovers. Nica kept a piano by Monk's room, but Monk almost never touched it. "If his health improved and his manic-depressive cycles were under control," Kelley writes, "why did he stop playing? Having spent the better part of fourteen years tracing Monk's every step, I was not surprised by his decision. In fact, I wondered why he did not retire earlier." Kelley is a judicious biographer, but I find this conclusion difficult to accept. Monk told Sonny Rollins that when all else failed, there was always music. Music was not to be let go, no matter how unsteady things got, and by all accounts in the book, the later performances, except for the final one, were still filled with magic. Maybe with more equilibrium, though, Monk was not inspired to sit down at the piano and feign his most inspired moments -- which came, at least in part, from a place of serious illness.

In 2006 a posthumous Pulitzer was bestowed on Monk. Since 1987 the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has given awards to promising musicians with chops far smoother than those of its namesake. Monk the shrine will continue to be polished. Monk the man is only beginning to be understood, and Kelley's book admirably helps us appreciate the pleasures and pathos of an exceedingly heavy head case. But no matter how much Monk is demystified, he will still be weird and there will still be new things to learn just by trying to puzzle him out on the page or at the piano.

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. "KNOW" said the ring, more or less, to the audience. "MONK" was the reply when he saw it himself.

David Yaffe, a professor of English at Syracuse University, is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton)

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