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October 17, 2009

Misterioso No More: Book Debunks Image of a Jazz Giant


Let’s say goodbye forever to an old jazz myth: Thelonious Monk as inexplicable mad genius.

Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” just published by Free Press, is an omnibus of myth-busting. It holds the largest amount of helpful, uncaricatured information about Monk in one place and goes a long way to correct a reductive understanding of Monk as a person, if not necessarily Monk as an artist, that has persisted for more than 60 years.

In 1947 the photographer and occasional journalist William Gottlieb wrote an excited article for Down Beat magazine, suggesting that Monk—then 29 — was “the George Washington of be-bop,” although “few have ever seen him.” Several months later Blue Note issued a provocative news release with Monk’s first 78 r.p.m. record.

“A shy and elusive person,” it read, “Thelonious has been surrounded by an aura of mystery, but [it is] simply because he considers the piano the most important thing in his life and can become absorbed in composing that people, appointments and the world pass by unnoticed.” It went on, “Among musicians, Thelonious’s name is treated with respect and awe, for he is a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him.”

Monk’s records didn’t sell well immediately, but the myth did. In the years to come the character sketches of Monk snowballed into a generalized perception of him as aloof, mystical and somewhat childish.

It’s a chicken-or-egg question, about Monk’s eccentric behavior versus how it was interpreted — but Mr. Kelley asserts that the “mystery” reputation became almost a professional liability. (In the late 1940s —while making some of the greatest recordings in all of jazz — he and his wife were destitute.) Monk sometimes tried to dispel the myth in interviews, but ultimately lost interest.

Nobody faults Monk for his musicianship anymore, and his harmonic language has been fully absorbed into jazz’s mainstream. But there are still questions. Why did his music sound that way, with crabbed chord voicings and brusque repetitions, somewhere between stride-piano-fulsome and bebop-jagged? Why did he come to a creative cul-de-sac in the 1960s, with so many indifferent performances and a falling-off in the output of new compositions?

What was the nature of his relationship with Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, or Nica, his friend and occasional patron from 1954 until his death in 1982? Why did he get up and dance in circles during performances? And what exactly was his psychological condition?

Mr. Kelley, who has spent this week and last in New York in a run of events surrounding the book’s publication, has a list of refutations to make. “The main ones,” he said in an interview this week, “are that Monk was disengaged and unaware of his surroundings. I argue that he was incredibly engaged with his family, friends and music; he was in the business.

Two, that he and Nica had anything but a platonic relationship. I argue that he wasn’t as dependent on her as it seemed. Three, that descriptions of him as childlike and taciturn were completely wrong.”

Possibly most important of all the perceptions to combat, Mr. Kelley said, “was that Monk was an ‘artiste,’ a reclusive personality.”

“He wanted to get a hit,” Mr. Kelley continued. “He wanted to make money. It wasn’t about fame; it was about a working musician who believes that you could take a pure piece of music and get people to buy it.”

To prove his points over the 14 years spent researching and writing his book, Mr. Kelley, 47, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California, resolved to humanize Monk.  He traced Monk’s family back to his 18th-century ancestors in eastern North Carolina. But he also took advantage of some of the newer public resources in jazz scholarship, as well as some of its private troves.

He spoke to every one of Monk’s surviving relatives who knew him to talk about his character in general, his reactions to specific events in history and his career. (Other writers and researchers had talked to members of the Monk family, but none to so many.) Their comments create the binding glue of the book, a composite of how Monk saw the world, how and why he engaged and disengaged with it.

Mr. Kelley had rare access to some of the home tapes of jam sessions and conversations made by Nica. For a recounting of Monk’s public reception, he scoured not just the American jazz press but also black newspapers and publications from countries including Poland, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands.

And he found valuable information in some sources that have only recently come to light: the papers of Teo Macero, one of Monk’s record producers, and of Mary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist; and in the 3,000 hours of audio tapes made by the photographer W. Eugene Smith at a New York loft building where Monk rehearsed.

Mr. Kelley also took over the rental of a Monk family storage space in  downtown Manhattan, containing old clothes, Monk’s LP collection, medical records and hotel bills and one of his original arrangements, written in pencil.

Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr., acted as the gatekeeper to the family’s cooperation, Mr. Kelley said. But the key was Nellie Monk, Thelonious Monk’s wife, protector and day-to-day factotum, who generally did not give interviews, and took five years to be convinced of the worth of Mr. Kelley’s project.

“Without Nellie’s cooperation, I couldn’t have written the book,” Mr. Kelley said. She connected him with Monk’s cousins, nieces and nephews, and also with her own cousin, the psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lou Smith, who had helped Nellie with her own physical ailments. Dr. Smith knew about Monk’s history with Thorazine, which he had first been prescribed by doctors at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts in 1959, and she helped Mr. Kelley sharpen his understanding of Monk’s bipolar disorder.

In the fall of 2001 Mr. Kelley, then working at Columbia University, was  struck by a car, breaking his leg and damaging his knees. He had to resort to teaching from his apartment sofa, and it took two years before he could walk without a cane. But it was during that period that Nellie Monk, he said, truly became involved in the project.

“Nellie’s sympathy for me ran so deep that every day she’d call me up and ask me how I’m doing,” he said. “She’d tell me about tea and juice that I should be drinking. Our connection centered around my healing. I became one of her patients.” She was nearing 80.

Mr. Kelley has one persistent regret. Ms. Monk had already talked on the record, but invited him over to her son’s house in June 2002 for what she promised would be a much more extensive interview on a Friday. She fell ill the day before the interview, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage the following Tuesday.

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