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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Paperback – November 2, 2010
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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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
"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."
"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."
"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, AllAboutJazz.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
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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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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".