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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Paperback – Illustrated, November 2, 2010
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—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
About the Author
- ASIN : 1439190461
- Publisher : Free Press; Illustrated edition (November 2, 2010)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 624 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9781439190463
- ISBN-13 : 978-1439190463
- Item Weight : 1.4 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #69,903 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Monk was born in the south and his parents migrated to NY. Though his father disappeared from his life (eventually into an asylum), he had strong support from his mother and extended family. A high school dropout, he decided early on to become a jazz musician and studied under a series of tutors. He began to play professionally while still in his teens. His life was an extraordinary struggle to survive, to make ends meet, to gain fame, and to maintain his personal and creative integrity. His marriage was happy.
Kelley is at pains to prove that the stereotypes about him are inaccurate. First, he was well versed in classical and other genres of music rather than a hayseed who was only self taught. Second, he was not a drug-addled madman or primitive, but a sophisticated player who thought of his image, only cultivating an air of eccentricity for the most part to keep the overly intrusive at a distance. Third, though he did struggle with bipolar disorder, for the most part he was highly functional and creative in a career of nearly 50 years. That being said, Monk did display many of these characteristics when he was at his worst, as the author points out repeatedly. It is a balanced portrait that does not seek to lionize his genius or vilify a difficult man of many pathologies.
Regarding his musical invention, Monk experimented with a tonal system, introducing dissonance and simplified chords as well as slower rhythms. The result was a unique sound that no one else has quite mastered. More importantly, he helped jazz to get out of a rut involving very clear cut forms and conventions that were stifling freer improvisation as well as deeper expression of emotion. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say it was a moment similar to the way that Beethoven smashed Baroque norms, producing a deeper, more philosophical and all-encompassing artistic experience in music.
It is useful to be clear about the intended audience. If you are an aficionado familiar with most of the music and musicians, the book is a great joy and utterly fascinating. I have been into jazz for nearly 50 years – not exactly a fanatical fan, but a serious lover of the form. For me, the book was enormously enriching, filling in gaps in my knowledge, explaining quirks that I have noticed in my collection, and explaining the economics and context of how jazzmen made their careers. However, if you are not into jazz already, this book will be harder going and perhaps uninteresting. There is a fair amount of jargon in it, the curse of all books about music, and lists of obscure player rosters for all his gigs. All I can say is, this book hugely enhanced my listening experience and left me hungry for more.
Recommended with enthusiasm and awe at the author’s mastery of the subject.
It is a book you will finish and repeatedly pick up, looking for a passage you liked, a passage you remembered, a passage you forgot about and then remembered.
It is the ideal coffee table book, never losing its freshness.
Of course, there is more to say. This being the Big Book it is, sometimes Kelley loses control of the narrative. Debunking a myth about Monk, then writing as if the myth was true. The idea of tiny Miles Davis picking a fight with the enormously strong Monk is laughable, but their prickly personalities are often exaggerated into fistfights. I personally happily accept a little inconsistency for the wealth of data and insight.
Kelley is consistent on attacking one myth in particular, the idea that Monk was apolitical. Monk believed that his music was, but not himself. This simple distinction somehow eluded the press. What is clear from Kelley's book is that Monk played for civil rights charities as often as he could, but his lack of draw limited him financially.
Buy it, and buy it in another version. This is a must read for anyone who wants to read about jazz: 10 stars, 4 thumbs up, I liked it.
Critics had a great deal to do with Monk's difficulties.
Critics should have to present their qualifications before they offer their opinions since those opinions affect the very existence of an artist. For artistic innovators that is particularly important.
Monk's critics should have had to demonstrate that they could play at least one Monk tune on each album they critiqued.
For live performances, they should have been able to at least pick out the melody on a piano to assure readers that their opinions were based upon objectivity. The fact that a critic wrote for a jazz magazine is insufficient. The fact that much of the avant-garde wasn't much more than noise was due to no small fact of the ignorance of critics ability to determine between good music or record companies trying to make a quick buck.
Top reviews from other countries
The book's success hinges on its detailed research, To indicate just how detailed that was, it took 14 years to write, nearly half of the Kindle edition consists of footnotes and an index, and the first draft was 70, 000 words longer than the published version. Kelley's approach is straightforward. A chronological account, with an unusually and laudably tight grip on the chronology, it starts with details of Monk's ancestors at the end of the American Civil War and goes through to his death aged 64 in 1982, with a short but moving account of relevant events after that. The detail is so thorough that at times it's an almost day-by-day account of Monk's life, grounding his professional life in the context of his family circle and the wider social, economic and political events around him. Because of the detail, and the chronological approach, it's better than pretty much any other jazz biography in conveying the day-to-day struggle of making a living in what was (and to an extent still is) a marginal and underappreciated art-form. Monk's happy family life and remarkable creativity are constantly threatened by desperate financial struggle, lack of critical respect (and general understanding) and persistent racism. Kelley's pen portraits of Monk's friends and family are sharp and vivid, and this is particularly interesting when describing less famous musicians (such as Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware) who are much less frequently discussed than the Coltranes and Blakeys in jazz writing overall. The book is also remarkably successful in portraying jazz as a small community, prone to tantrums, jealousy, and fallings-out as well as long-standing, deep friendships and mutual support. This community was also, for a long time, devastated by widespread heroin addiction, which eroded those friendships and, by exploiting it, strained the support network, and also curtailed many lives. The overall impact of the heroin plague is more effectively conveyed by Kelley's careful prose than by many other, more highly-coloured accounts.
That careful, deliberately non-sensationalist prose is also crucial to the book's success. Kelley allows his firmly-established facts to speak for themselves (though he does apply acute judgements in his evaluations of performances and recordings), and makes his points by this careful accumulation of detail rather than through colourful but unsubstantiated anecdotes (the more celebrated of which he frequently rebuts). The accumulation of detail does lead to a certain dryness at times (notably the accounts of Monk's gigging schedule in the 1960s, though, hey, who knew Monk played Durham University in 1966?), but it's fundamental to blowing away the inaccuracies and flapdoodle that have characterised the discourse around Monk since the 1940s. For the most part the prose, though plain and unadorned, is clear, effective and readable. Kelley's objectivity does slip a little - the quotes from Monk he provides to illustrate his verbal wait and engagement with social issues are largely unconvincing - but overall it's sustained brilliantly and to a great and necessary purpose.
In addition to the copious notes and index, Kelley also provides a recommended listening and viewing guide, a checklist of all Monk's compositions, and a small but fascinating selection of photos which aren't the usual suspects that typically crop up in jazz histories.
I've been listening to Monk's music since 1983 and this book has substantially deepened my love and understanding of it. I suspect it will do the same for any other Monk fan, and if that's you, you really should order it immediately.