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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 6, 2009
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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.)
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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, Boston Globe
I doubt there will be a biography anytime soon that is as textured, thorough and knowing. . . The "genius of modern music" has gotten the passionate, and compassionate, advocate he deserves. --August Kleinzahler, New York Times Book Review
If every icon deserves at least one definitive bio, it's official: Monk now has his. --K. Leander Williams, Time Out Magazine
This exhaustively researched work will undoubtedly now remain the definitive work on Monk, a rebel with a cause. --Steve Heilig, San Francisco Chronicle
This affectionate biography fills in the fascinating and heart-wrenching backstory of an artist the world has always longed to know better.
--John Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
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But what makes the book so readable for me is the even handedness of the author. The book is at times, excruciatingly detailed, making Monk’s life look just a little bleaker and darker than we might want to know about. Although each chapter starts with a quote from Monk that gets illuminated in the pages to follow, I’m sure the author had to fight the urge to give every chapter the exact same title, which would have been, “The next bad thing that happened to Monk was …” It really seems that for most of his life, Thelonious just couldn’t catch a break. Sure plenty of good stuff happened between the insane asylum and prison terms, and there were probably a lot more successful jazz club engagements than there were firings, prohibitions, and not infrequent occasions of ostracizing, but it sure seems that Monk had a harder time bringing his music to the public than most other musicians of the time. The fact that he actually succeeded makes the reading all the more rewarding,
Thankfully, this books excels at not dwelling on the misery by always harking back to the music. Each chapter is filled with insight, exploration, and history of recording sessions, studios, producers, backing musicians, song writing, improvisation, performances, club owners, record companies, musicians’ unions, musical folklore, and everything musical. For me, it is refreshing to know that talented musicians often felt the same way I do about some of Monk’s pieces, like when they proclaim that a piece is “unplayable” or that Monk was uninspired and spiteful for composing the way he did. Once you read about the logic of Monk and the epiphanies of the other musicians, it becomes possible to take heart and really enjoy, and even learn from, Monk’s music.
Personally, as a jazz pianist who only took up the piano a few years ago as a hobby, I admit to having mostly stayed away from playing Monk’s music, even though I love listening to it. This was partly to avoid frustration, and partly because I didn’t understand it. Not that I understand it a little more, I find it isn’t as frustrating and in fact, there is a certain joy in undertaking the challenge, knowing that if I can do Monk’s music justice, there isn’t much else that can get in my way. It gives me the feeling that now that I have gotten a look under the hood, I’m ready to drive the Thelonious car, and I have this five star jazz biography to thank.
America sure treats its jazz musicians badly, and the racism has been appalling. As an example, Pannonica was driving Monk to a gig in D.C. in the late 50s, and Monk asked her to stop at a hotel in Delaware, to get a drink of water. Immediately, cops were called, and they searched Pannonica's Bentley without a warrant and found one spliff. They were both arrested for this heinous crime. Pannonica took the rap for it, and the court case dragged on for ages. She was nearly jailed for a year! All of this trouble arose because a black man went into a hotel lobby to ask for a drink of water.
I am not the perfect reviewer, but I hope that this has given you a taste of what this book is like. I almost felt that I was hanging out with the Monks, while I was reading it. I saw him live in 1971, when he toured with the "Giants Of Jazz". I am a saxophone player, and I wish I could have played with him. I am certain that I would have gotten on well with him.
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Without Professor Kelly’s deep knowledge of music, this surely would have been just another run-of-the-mill biography. However, with such knowledge, it sets this biography apart and makes it scarily good — so good in fact that it makes it easy to summarize the complex life of a complex man, Thelonious “Sphere” Monk, who indeed was an American original. To wit:
All one really needs to know about Monk is that he was a family man who grew up in a Pentecostal church environment, and who was also a musical genius: meaning he was born with “perfect pitch,” and I might add, “perfect rhythm” — even though, as far as I know, no such concept really even exists.
However, in addition to having “perfect pitch” and “perfect rhythm,” Monk also had another important asset: the ability to “know how not to make the wrong mistake.” And any one who has listened carefully to Monk’s exquisitely timed angular and dissonant chords, will know exactly what all this means. It helps too if one also knows that Monk was formally trained and studied Chopin, Rachmaninov, Bach and Stravinsky.
Monk’s music, like his bipolar schizophrenic life, is difficult to pigeonhole. He was unique in so many ways. To wit: Like myself, he was the great grandson of a slave from North Carolina. In my case, it was Seamount, North Carolina, a small town that no longer exists, near Raleigh. In Monk’s case, it was Edgecombe county, near Rocky Mount.
My great grandfather, Moses Daniel, migrated from Sea Mount, following the railroads down through Mississippi and back up to Memphis, and on to Scott, Arkansas, where he managed to purchase 100 acres of land there, and with his son Smith, began as an independent farmer for his family of thirteen children. Part of that estate was bequeathed to my maternal grandmother, Lula Daniel-Brown. She and my grandfather Silas Brown, farmed that land for the better part of 40 years, before retiring to Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Monk’s great grandfather, John Jack, stayed around Rocky Mount, North Carolina and sharecropped until both he and his son died. After which the single-headed household of four moved on to the San Juan Hill ghetto of New York City.
Young Thelonius, first tried the trumpet, but quickly switched to the piano. He took lessons; played for the church, and then learned “stride piano” techniques well enough to begin gigging with a small traveling combo.
Still in his twenties, this led to a stint at Minton’s, which launched his professional career. And although it was a long rocky start, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Anyone who has listened to Thelonius Monk knows that the complexity of his angular dissonant music, and difficult to anticipate rhythms, are first a puzzle and a study in dissonance, then an intellectual challenge of the complex art of rhythms and chords, and finally a begrudging appreciation for the utter subtlety and beauty of Monk's enormous genius.
When Miles died, I discovered that Thelonius Monk's phone number was actually listed in the Philadelphia area phone book. And for some crazy and unaccountable reason, I actually called it and asked to speak to Monk. It was obvious that it was Monk himself who had answered the phone and said to me "Monk don't live here." Click!
Such was part of my journey to understanding the man, the music, and the enigma that is Thelonius Sphere Monk. Like learning to understand and appreciate Billy Holiday and John Coltrane, understanding Monk his music and his strange persona have been an integral part of my intellectual journey in life.
I think I called him just so that I could say that I had spoken to the great Thelonius Monk. Thus, I could not have been more please to discover this book. I am still searching for an equivalent book on Clifford Brown. The one that is available does not do the great trumpeter the justice he is due.
I do not believe that one can pretend to be musically literate without having wrestled with Monk and his music. There is something both scary and endearing about them both. One is that he always lived with one foot straddled another world, one entirely of his own making. And until you understand it, the same seems true of his music. Were it not for his music however, he would surely have been dismissed as a "nut case." And yet, he in all his many curious aspects, including his bi-polar illness, Monk symbolizes something essential about our culture.
To his credit, Robin Kelly has captured that essence here exquisitely. And although I can no longer remember the name of the book, this is not the first book I have reviewed by Robin Kelly. I know that as a pianist himself, he has had "Monk on the brain," for most of his life. Thus, to him this book was clearly a labor of love, a life project -- and it shows. It is not just a biography of Monk but an archaeological dig and exploration of him, his history as a person and as a Jazz musician, his character, his music, his life and his loves, his demons. It is a book that both the musically literate and those just fascinated by the personality of Monk can all enjoy equally.
My hat is off to Kelly for writing a book that does justice to this great American musician and hero. Five stars