Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley

Jazz history is mired in myth. Storyville to Minton's; Buddy Bolden as pied piper to Bird as tragic hero; kings, dukes and dark princes. Thankfully, a number of diligent scholars have disentangled some truth from the myriad tall tales (Garry Giddins and Scott Deveaux are the latest to offer up a substantial work, titled simply Jazz.)

Still, there's that Monk, the enigmatic high priest of bop. Monk's endured as more of a hazy archetype than flesh and blood. Impenetrably hip, indecipherably eccentric, with a born, black musicality, Monk is both the ultimate hipster and an unadulterated artist. Of course, that Monk is largely just an amalgam of everything from played out racial stereotypes to misunderstandings about mental illness. Here, Robin D.G. Kelley tries his hand at retrieving Monk the man from the heap of reductive and often demeaning stories that give us Monk the legend. He succeeds.

First thing's first, we're lucky to get a Monk biography from a practiced historian, rather than a critic or hobbyist. That Kelley's painstaking research and sourcing is the work of a pro is reinforced on every page. He proves that it takes more than passion or a way with words to do justice to a subject like Monk. Kelley shows the judgment of a person who's made a career, not just an occasional go, of poring over documents. At least this reader believes we're getting close to the best construction possible from the available material. And Monk certainly deserves the treatment Kelly gives him. Starting with the book's title, the straightforward and definitive Thelonious Monk, rather than some cliched song title, Round Midnight maybe, or Monk's Dream, we get a work that treats its subject as a matter of serious scholarship. Kelly distances himself sufficiently to give us that scholarship, but not so much that we can't enjoy it. There's a healthy reverence, to be sure, but happily, it falls short of that tired worship that gave us a lot of the bullshit to begin with.

We're all familiar with Monk's place in the pantheon of jazz composers, as well as his singular style at the keys. What struck me over and over again in this book is his legacy as both a teacher and ally to so many of his contemporaries, especially the younger, rawer talent around him. Monk tutored to varying degrees the likes of Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, David Amram, Gigi Gryce, Jaki Byard, Trane and Miles of course, and on and on endlessly. The story is always the same: he didn't say much, just let you know when you were playing it wrong. He was especially keen on the great, sometimes under-appreciated pianists of his day; besides Powell and Hope, Monk was close with Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Nichols and others. When a bunch of journalists hounded Monk for word on injuries he sustained when a stoop on which he was sitting collapsed, he offered only, after a long silence, that Elmo Hope is the greatest pianist in the world. He confounded not only the questioners, but Hope's mother, who was in the room at the time. That was Monk's sense of humor, but also his fierce loyalty.

Monk may not have invented bebop, but he certainly disseminated it, at the retail level that is, like none other. When the trumped up tales fall away, the most common recollection of Monk by people who knew him best is as a great fountainhead from which the language and posture of modern jazz flowed.

The importance of Monk's own teachers weren't lost on him either. One of the more touching episodes in the book is Monk's reaction to Coleman Hawkins's death. Of his many fallen comrades, Monk seemed to take Bean's death particularly hard, no doubt in part because he looked to Bean as one of his few teachers in a life full of students.

Rather than unpack the whole book, I'll just recommend it highly. If there's one trouble I had, it's that for all of Kelley's efforts to humanize Monk, it remains hard to get into his head. Kelley succeeds more in giving us Monk through the eyes of those around him. I guess the fact is that Monk did suffer from a debilitating, often untreated or mistreated mental illness, so his head is simply hard to get into. Some events like, for instance, Monk's mental breaks, his sudden separation from his wife Nellie snuck up on me, because we're not fully along for the psychic rides that led to the events. Kelley most succeeds in relating deeply personal and revealing moments in his descriptions of the home recordings of Monk at his piano with Nellie, or arranging his music for a big band with Hall Overton. Kelley puts those moments to paper beautifully and it's just a pleasure to live with Monk at those times. I'd love to hear the tapes myself.

So many artists deserve a proper bio like this (anyone want to tackle Mingus, I'd be grateful). The portrait of Monk here is full, fair, and warm but honest. I recommend the book.

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