[the following is a Blu Notes column in the Spring issue of Jazziz Magazine]
I remember Robin D. G. Kelley as the guy with the best show-and-tell in class. It was 2001. Kelley had been appointed to a professorial chair endowed in Louis Armstrong's name through Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies, and I was at Columbia on a one-year arts-journalism fellowship. When I heard about Kelley's class focusing on Thelonious Monk, I signed right up.
Kelley was researching a biography he planned to write about the pianist. He talked about the cooperation he was enjoying from Monk's family, especially Monk's widow, Nellie. He pulled out a cassette, popped it in, pressed play. It was Monk, playing Chopin -- beautifully, correctly, devilishly fast. Kelley played us another tape; after a tender rendition of "Tea for Two," Monk asked Nellie, with even greater tenderness, "Were you recording that?" Something in his voice told me they were having a great deal of fun and were much in love.
The messages -- conveyed posthumously by the pianist himself, via tape -- seemed clear enough: Monk was no primitive who created music absent knowledge or influence of Western classical music, nor was he a stoic madman incapable of communication aside from his music.
Those themes are central to Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Its 451 pages of densely packed narrative (588, with notes) are first and foremost bent on clearing away misinformation and mystification. "For well over half a century," Kelley writes in his prelude, "the press and the critics have portrayed Monk as 'eccentric,' 'mad,' 'childlike,' 'brooding,' 'naïve,' 'intuitive,' 'primitive,' even 'taciturn.' ... The myths surrounding Monk have gotten in the way of the truth, and the truth about his life and music is fascinating and complicated -- and no less original or creative than the myth."
The figure that emerges in Kelley's exhaustively detailed pages is funny, caring, attentive to and curious about the world around him. He's interested in reaching a popular audience -- even searching for a "hit" -- yet steadfastly committed to his own musical ideas. At the age of 11, Monk studied with Simon Wolf, an Austrian émigré who had studied under the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. After not too many sessions with young Thelonious, Wolf declared: "I don't think there will be anything I can teach him. He will go beyond me very soon." Before long, Monk absorbed the music of jazz pianists such as James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington, soon enough moving beyond those influences too.
His artistic vision seems to have developed sturdily and early on. Pianist Mary Lou Williams heard Monk in Kansas City in 1935, when he was still a teenager. "He was one of the original modernists all right," she recalled, "playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he's playing now." Most listeners would need to wait more than a decade, for the release of Genius of Modern Music on Blue Note, to grasp what Monk was up to. Though his band concept would develop further, the essential elements -- rhythmic displacements, startling silences, clotted chords, flat-fingered runs and spiky dissonances -- were all there.
"I can play like Art Tatum if I want," Monk told saxophonist Johnny Griffin. "But I don't need that." And, as Kelley reveals, Monk's innovations resulted from a carefully wrought architecture and diligent restraint. Monk's creations were highly personal, notable as much for memorable yet inscrutable melodies as for any specific musical elements. They also helped seed a wider bebop revolution, especially through Monk's years as house pianist at Minton's after-hours club in Harlem. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker never denied the credit due Monk. Still, by 1945, "as Thelonious scraped money together for subway fare and bummed cigarettes from friends," Kelley writes, "Dizzy and Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker had become the newest sensations."
The story Kelley tells is consistently both tragic and triumphant. By the mid 1940s, everywhere Monk turned he heard other artists playing his tunes; he was "becoming an iconic figure despite his inability to record his own music." Even as his influence grew, Monk suffered hard times due to mixed critical reception and legal difficulties. After a drug bust, Monk took the rap for Bud Powell and lost his New York cabaret license for six years. A year after his triumphant return in 1957 with his quartet, featuring John Coltrane, at the Five Spot, Monk's cabaret card was revoked again following a terrible beating for resisting arrest in New Castle, Delaware; he landed in Long Island's Rivercrest Sanitarium.
"Weird means something you never heard before," Monk said of his music. "It's weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird." He was right. Monk's music is now canonical stuff. But Monk's behavior in general grew stranger over time.
Throughout the book, Kelley contextualizes this: Monk had a trickster sense of humor; he loved keeping people off-balance. But his more alarming idiosyncrasies turned out to be the precursor of a more serious bipolar illness that would over time become immobilizing. This too is demystified: "Whether or not Monk produced his best work during a 'manic phase' is less important than the overall impact his illness had," writes Kelley. "For someone so family-oriented who did not begin to make a decent living until he was over 40, there is nothing romantic or desirable about playing the tortured artist."
Despite the many important musicians who passed through Monk's music, his artistic achievements seem fully self-directed. Off the bandstand was a different story. Kelley portrays as heroic those family and friends who grasped not just Monk's greatness but his vulnerability: his hardworking and devoted mother, Barbara; his devoted and indefatigable wife, Nellie; his patron saint and friend the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, with whom, Kelley asserts, Monk shared a deep but platonic relationship.
Kelley opens his book with Monk riding high in 1957, then strides back in time -- like a good Monk solo -- to his birth in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and then yet further, to his enslaved West African ancestors. Perhaps that's a nod to the African influence in Monk's music, something pianist Randy Weston describes in a later section. Clearly it's to drive home the point that Monk's grandparents were "part of freedom's first generation of African Americans" and that his parents "watched that democracy -- and their freedom -- burn" in the Jim Crow South. "Thelonious, his sister Marion, and brother Thomas were raised by people for whom freedom had tangible meaning."
How much of Monk's stoicism in the face of inane interviewers and threatening cops was plain resistance and not mental illness? We can't really know. But Kelley is right when he claims that "Monk's music is especially about freedom." And he reasonably argues that "as Thelonious's parents in turn passed to him, freedom meant more than breaking the 'rules' of musical harmony or bending tempos."
But it also meant just that. In 1967, after he had retreated permanently to the baroness's Weehawken, New Jersey, home, just five years before he'd die in Nellie's arms, Monk heard someone on Columbia University's WKCR-FM droning on about how he'd created extraordinary music in spite of "playing the wrong notes on the piano." Monk called the station and left a message: "Tell the guy on the air the piano ain't got no wrong notes." Though virtually imprisoned by his illness, no longer even performing, that was one liberty Monk wasn't ready to let go.