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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Paperback – November 2, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Monk’s story, from roots in slavery, to the Great Migration north, to the cultural explosions of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, encapsulates a vivid tableau of twentieth-century American life and music. This biography is, at its best, a fitting tribute to one of America’s most original and lasting creative geniuses." --The Sacramento Book Review

"...extraordinary and heroically detailed...I doubt there will be a biography anytime soon that is as textured, thorough and knowing as Kelley's. The "genius of modern music" has gotten the passionate, and compassionate, advocate he deserves" - August Kleinzahler, The New York Times Book Review

“An omnibus of myth busting.”—Ben Ratliff, The New York Times

"...a massive and impressive undertaking...Thoroughly researched, meticulously footnoted, and beautifully crafted, “Thelonious Monk’’ presents the most complete, most revealing portrait ever assembled of the man known as the high priest of bebop" - Steve Greenlee, The Boston Globe

"Every step of Monk's musical journey is teased out in meticulous detail...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

"A wealth of historical context is richly studded with details of Monk's family background and the broader world in which he lived and worked...Likely the most thorough possible illumination of the man behind the legend" - Library Journal

“Thelonious Monk was a true original…This affectionate biography fills in the fascinating and heart-wrenching backstory of an artist the world has always longed to know better.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Robin D.G. Kelley’s exhaustive, necessary, and as of now definitive [book] offers a Baedeker of sorts…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.” –David Yaffe, The Nation

“This is an authoritative tome that pulls aside, without completely lifting, the shroud of mystery that has long surrounded one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of jazz.” –Russ Musto, All About Jazz.com

“…as complete a picture of this complex, original and enigmatic artist as possible… this very welcome book is certain to be a go-to reference.” –Down Beat Magazine

“A seminal examination of the man and his music.” Bay State Banner

“Kelley hopes to balance Monk's brilliance and historic achievements with his quirks and serious problems (bipolar disorder) to take the true measure of the man. Dedicated readers of jazz history and students of Cold War and Civil Rights Era culture won't be disappointed.”—The New Haven Advocate

"Robin Kelley's new biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a breath of fresh air among the biographies of our legendary jazz musicians. This book is thorough, detailed, and written with a true affinity for Monk's humaneness and creative musical output. It fills in the missing pieces about the growth of the jazz scene in New York through the forties, fifties, and sixties, detailing each step of Monk's development -- who passed through his bands, what gigs he played, and what happened on those scenes. It's an invaluable and close look at the center of the world's most important creative musical developments in those decades: New York City." -- CHICK COREA

"Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is one of the most anticipated books in jazz scholarship, and well worth the wait. Robin D. G. Kelley represents one of this generation's most important voices equipped with the knowledge, passion, and respect for both jazz and jazz musicians required to interpret the many details and nuances of Thelonious Monk's life. This compelling book will both challenge old assumptions and inspire new assessments of the life and legacy one of the world's greatest musicians." -- GERI ALLEN, pianist, composer, and Associate Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation, University of Michigan

"Powerful, enraging, and enduring.... In Robin Kelley's finely grained and surely definitive lifeand-times study, Thelonious Monk, an American original, has found an original biographer." -- DAVID LEVERING LEWIS, biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois and Pulitzer Prize winner

"An honest and eloquent treatment of one of our most important artists, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a stunning tour de force! It is the most comprehensive treatment of Monk's life to date. Furthermore, in Monk's story, Kelley has found the perfect medium to shed light on a nation's, and a people's, history and persistent quest for freedom. In so doing he has given us a book that is as bold, brilliant, and beautiful as Monk and his music." -- FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN, author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (November 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439190461
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439190463
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robin D. G. Kelley never met Thelonious Monk, but he grew up with his music. Born in 1962, he spent his formative years in Harlem in a household and a city saturated with modern jazz. As a child he took a few trumpet lessons with the legendary Jimmy Owens, played French horn in junior high school, and picked up piano during his teen years in California. In 1987, Kelley earned his PhD in History from UCLA and focused his work on social movements, politics and culture--although music remained his passion.

During his tenure on the faculties of Emory University, the University of Michigan, New York University, and Columbia University, Kelley's scholarly interests shifted increasingly toward music. He has written widely on jazz, hip hop, electronic music, musicians' unions and technological displacement, and social and political movements more broadly.

Before becoming Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Robin D. G. Kelley served on the faculty at Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies, where he held the first Louis Armstrong Chair in Jazz Studies. Besides Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley has authored several prize-winning books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997), which was selected one of the top ten books of 1998 by the Village Voice. He is currently completing Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011), and a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.

Kelley's essays have appeared in several anthologies and journals, including The Nation, Monthly Review, The Voice Literary Supplement, New York Times (Arts and Leisure), New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Color Lines, Code Magazine, Utne Reader, Lenox Avenue, African Studies Review, Black Music Research Journal, Callaloo, New Politics, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noir, One World, Social Text, Metropolis, American Visions, Boston Review, Fashion Theory, American Historical Review, Journal of American History, New Labor Forum, Souls, Metropolis, and frieze: contemporary art and culture, to name a few.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
588 pages,including acknowledgments,appendices,notes,and compositions by Monk. This adds up to 129 pages out of the total. The paper used is a cream-white,and the the type-face is straight forward,clean and,together,make for an easy read. There are 16 pages of black and white photographs,starting with Monk's parents,on through his family,and several of Monk playing on the bandstand. These are a valuable addition,and give some depth to the writing.

This is an important book on Thelonious Monk. Not only his music,but an in-depth look at the person behind the music. The author,Robin Kelley,delved into Monk's life for ten years,with access to family papers and private recordings. In doing so Kelley has produced the first book to accurately portray what made Monk "tick". Many books talk about Monk the "hipster",the jazz player who wore hats (believe it or not,this was thought to be important) not in keeping with the current fashion of the day,the outspoken man who most deemed overly critical,and,an eccentric. Was Monk temperamental? Absolutely. Did he act in ways outside "normal" behavior? Yes. Was Monk a true eccentric? Probably most certain. But in this well written book the author digs deeply into Monk's life,starting with his upbringing,his family ties and influence,his early life,jail,and his mental and physical disorders,his one true love in life,Nellie,and his many friends (Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter for example),and associates in the music world.

This book shows why Monk--was Monk. His mother's encouragement to follow his own path,early in Monk's life,set him on his own individual path.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you're interested in jazz, post war urban American history or just enjoy reading well written biographies...buy this book. Deftly written, extremely well researched and highly readable this book is a great acheivemment.

Being a professional musician I have read many music bios (jazz and otherwise) and this ranks among the best. Robin Kelley clearly has a love for his subject and as an amateur pianist he writes intelligently about Monk and his music. But don't expect this book to be an academic bore. His detailed account of Monk, his circle of musician friends and the clubs he played made me feel like I was there. I could smell the cigarette smoke and hear the jam sessions at Minton's and feel the atmosphere of the San Juan Hill neighborhood where Monk grew up and lived for so many years. You'll find yourself in the back of a TV repair shop where pianists (known and unknown) jammed and shared ideas and eavesdrop on rehearsals at Monks apartment and Hall Overton's loft...and so much more.

Kelley had unprecedented access to the Monk family archives and in every step of the book it shows. But more importantly Kelley is a great writer that weaves the details into a saga of post war African American life. Perhaps most importantly, Kelley debunks the myth of Monk as some sort of idiot savant or "noble savage" that inherited his genius by osmosis. Monk worked damn hard to create his art and Kelly takes you along every step of the way. Poignant, funny, sad and triumphant this book's got it all covered. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

"Two is one and one is two".
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Format: Hardcover
I approached this book with trepidation..there have been so many bios of Monk,Trane,Miles...and the 700 page hardbound looked a fearsome mix of dry research and lofty pronouncements. My scepticism rapidly gave way to ceaseless absorption as I devoured the pages..Not since Ross Russell's 'Bird Lives' have I torn though a biography of an artiste one has revered over the decades
Painstakingly researched and passionately written with a strong story line,"Monk" grips the reader from start to finish.The author gets behind the Monk character and psyche to portray what made him tick,how did he think and what went behind the man whose compositions and playing style continue to captivate millions even today as it confused thousands during his time.One lives and breathes each scene as you sit along with Monk as he relentlessly composes each of his tunes, rehearses with his sidemen and makes his recordings.

You are with him and the other greats at his gigs at Mintons, Five Spot, the 52nd Street clubs, Newport and all of Europe You are by his side as he scuffles and suffers poverty,house fires,mental illness,ridicule by critics and social ostracization....before gaining recognition.. You come within talking and breathing distance of Diz, Bird,Coltrane,Miles,Charlie Rouse,Bud Powell,Elmo Hope, and so many more that one has heard and read about.... its unbelievably realistic...
If you are a jazz person, this book has to be by your bedside, not just on your shelf
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Format: Hardcover
a "Reader's Digest Condensed" version so that casual fans can learn the essentials about Monk's life and career, without having to invest a month in reading all the details of his daily life presented here. The book is a good thing...but too much of a good thing for lovers of Monk's albums who are neither musicians nor historians of black life in the early 20th century. It's not just Monk's genealogy that gets into print, but that of his wife and some of his friends. We don't get a brief background of his major sidemen, we get extensive histories of some, and some history on almost everyone who ever played with Monk, even for a single outing. In addition, the history of NYC jazz clubs is detailed. I love Monk's music and I was glad I struggled through this massive work, and met Thelonious the real person, who loved his family, struggled against poorly understood manic depression, dabbled in hard drugs without becoming addicted, and was broke until about the last ten years of his long career. For decades, he got paying music work too seldom, then he hit a stretch in which he perhaps worked too much. For decades, he got too little attention from record buyers and club owners in spite of his innovations at the keyboard. I started my jazz listening as a teen, afraid of Monk. That was 50 years ago, and Brubeck, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing were all I could handle, being a square white kid with little money or life experience. I actually did not own a Monk album until ten years ago. Since then, I've owned ten or more, and he is the one jazz pianist who gets extensive repeat listening from me. Yes, he played the same 20 original tunes over and over with different size groups, different instrumentation, at different lengths, and when he was in different moods...Read more ›
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