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The Song Remains the Same

Recording technology may have changed, but music books access a timeless art form.  [Excerpt]
by Craig Morgan Teicher — Publishers Weekly, 9/7/2009

The odd thing about the history of recorded music—what makes it hard to compare to, say, the history of books—is that it’s obviously finite. While books go back to the beginning of recorded history, there are still people alive who were born before recorded music as we know it existed. Every year, a host of books on music attempt to tell the story; many strive to connect the dots between the various points in recorded music’s roughly 100-year history. This year is no exception: there’s a slew of new biographies, music criticism, photo books and cultural histories.

But this is a unique moment in the history of recorded music—by 2009, the transition from physical CDs to dowloadable MP3s has been pretty much completed. While CDs are still part of the picture, nobody thinks that digital downloads are a passing phase anymore. Music is more readily available than ever before, and whether they’re paying for it or not, more people are listening to more kinds of music than ever. This year’s crop of music books reflects a highly aware readership eager to get deep into the crannies of the music they love, to find new artists and to look back at the music of the past. Publishers and editors are excited about these books because they cater to a market the recession can’t kill: music itself is cheap if not (illegally) free, and books are an equally affordable way for fans to dig deeper.

Biographies of famous musical figures abound, some groundbreaking, others digging up old dirt. For jazz lovers, one of the most interesting is likely to be Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley. To say the least, Thelonious Monk, with his pork-pie hat and scruffy goatee, was an enigmatic figure, one of the major composers and pianists in jazz as well as a founding father of bebop. He’s a figure in need of reassessment, and that’s what Kelley does—he focuses on Monk the man, who raised a family, maintained close friendships, was a popular guy around his New York neighborhood and suffered from mental illness toward the end of his life.

“I’m battling a tradition of artist biographies that focus on the individual genius, and I kind of challenge that idea—it takes a village,” Kelley tells PW.

Martin Beiser, senior editor at Free Press, who edited Thelonious Monk, says this book is “a major event in its own right,” and that now is as good a time as any to publish it. “I’m not sure this is the kind of book you time,” he says. “We are a culture that always looks backwards to see where we came from. With Monk you’re looking not only at the history of American music, but African-American history, and he was very involved with the civil rights movement.” Kelley hopes to turn a few new people on to Monk: “The music tells a story. Especially when you know the personal story behind it, that he wrote many of these songs for his family, you hear it differently,” said Kelley.

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