Sascha Feinstein

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Sascha Feinstein: You are very humble in your introduction [to Thelonious Monk] about your own musical abilities, but it’s very evident that you really know music. Tell me a little about your musical background.

Robin D. G. Kelley: Sure. As far as piano goes, I’m basically self-taught. My interest in this music goes back to my childhood. My mother loved jazz. In fact, there’s a footnote in the book where my mom and my dad, when they were dating, were actually at one of Monk’s performances in Boston when he didn’t show up until much later. She set me up to have trumpet lessons with Jimmy Owens. Of course, as a kid—I was seven years old—I didn’t know anything about Jimmy Owens; all I knew was that he charged five dollars, and I used to spend my Saturdays at his house. (I just saw Jimmy, and I interviewed him for the book, which is a nice coming around.) I played some French horn in junior high school, but I had no models. I didn’t know anything about Julius Watkins or David Amram; I knew nothing about a jazz French horn player and figured the French horn had to be in orchestras. But in my high school years, my mother remarried; her husband, Paul Morehouse, was a jazz musician—a fine saxophone player, mainly an educator. He knew people like [bassist] Buell Neidlinger—he knew all those people, grew up with them. So he was teaching me bits and pieces, and he introduced me, on record, to Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker. I simply listened and tried to reproduce what I heard. And he began teaching me, on and off, about chord progressions. So even now, if you give me some piano music that has left and right hand, I struggle with bass clef; I can’t do that kind of stuff [with the left hand]. But I could read chord progressions. I could voice them and play well enough to make them make sense.

And I loved Monk’s music. At first, it took a while to understand it—and I’m still trying to understand it. I’d be lying if I said [just because] I spent fourteen years of my life focusing on this book that I understand everything, because I really don’t. I’m still working on that. But playing his music was like a vista for me in terms of harmonic and rhythmic possibility, and it was my exercise: my way of understanding the dynamics and mechanics of the piano. No one sat down and taught me anything—I sort of figured stuff out—and to this day, I rarely play in public. I probably know more than I can execute, and I’ve learned, after all these years, that I don’t have to sound like Monk to play his music. I’m still trying to sound like me. [Smiles.]

Feinstein: One of the many wonderful qualities of this biography has to do with your sense of cadence, chapter after chapter. Do you credit that to your musical sensibility?

Kelley: I never thought of it that way. I probably should, huh? [Laughs.] It’s funny because I’m better at closing a chapter than I am ending a song. It’s like that famous moment when Coltrane says, “I don’t know how to stop,” and Miles says, “Well, take the horn out of your mouth.” [Laughs.] I’m always saying that.

The cadence [to each chapter] really grows out of Monk’s life. In many cases, a death, or a transition, marked not so much the end of a period as a transition to the next moment of his life. I mean, death was so important to him; he took it hard.

Feinstein: That comes up repeatedly in the book—[his son] Toot saying, “My father couldn’t handle death.”

Kelley: Exactly, and I don’t know actually how that happened but closing each chapter, with some exceptions, seemed natural—although I do admit that there were a couple of places where I combined some chapters that had originally been split.

I come out of an academic background—an academic historian—and historians are trained to collect the evidence: make a big sweeping statement, and then support that statement with a lot of evidence. For so many history books, you tell your students, “You don’t have to read the whole thing; just know the thesis.” [Both laugh.] But I couldn’t do this with Monk. Every moment was kind of electric. It was like walking through a life that required narrative and storytelling, and it required understanding the barriers and challenges and openings each step of the way. So one thing I did learn from Monk, which really shaped the way I wrote this narrative, was in a couple of places where he says, “It’s a lot easier to play fast than it is to play slow and swing and make something out of that.” There’s another moment when he’s telling the band in 1959, rehearsing for [the famous big band concert at New York’s] Town Hall, where he says, “Some bands run the whole book [of concert charts] down in one night and don’t learn shit. I need you to do go one bar at a time and learn one song a day. One song.” That struck me; I learned something from that. Unfortunately, we’re living in a culture of the sound bite, a culture of fast information. That’s why people can’t read poetry. They can’t slow down to stop and feel and think and relish. I do readings [from the biography] and I’m always warning people, “Walk through Monk’s life and the lives of those around him. Know them; take your time. It will be well worth the trip.” I get people who look at the [size of the] book and say, “Oh my God—I don’t know . . .” or they go straight to the index. That’s like skipping to the twentieth bar of something and deciding to flounder in that. No—it’s the whole song, the whole piece, and that was my challenge.

Feinstein: You had remarkable access to private archives. What were some of your most exciting moments as a historian?

Kelley: Let me just say one thing off the bat: Despite what I say in the book, I wish the archives were deeper. The family actually didn’t have a whole lot.

Feinstein: Because of the apartment fires?

Kelley: Yeah. Also, neither Monk nor Nellie was into saving a lot of documentation. And Monk didn’t write letters; he didn’t write postcards. There’s no correspondence. There was him and his music. And he did write music, of course, and had manuscripts, although a lot of those burned in the fires. In terms of the private tapes [recorded by Nellie], there really wasn’t that much; I don’t think there were more than five or six hours of material. Now, Nica, the Baroness, has a lot of audio tapes, which I did not have access to.

Feinstein: Why not?

Kelley: I don’t know. It has to do with the [Rothschild] family; they’re protective. At one point, there was talk of releasing some of those jam sessions [recorded in the Baroness’s apartment] on CD, and I believe [the late] Joel Dorn was producing it—and then they pulled it. I don’t know the details, but there’s still more material and more conversations to learn about.

A lot of the material that I was able to find I found the old fashioned way. All those tax returns—that didn’t come from Monk’s estate; that came from dusty municipal archives in New York City because there was an estate challenge after Thelonious died. I found material all over the globe. I found interviews in different languages; I was dealing with about half a dozen different languages and hired people to translate them. I found snippets of information the old fashioned way. Also, the black press was a great, great resource. So there was a lot of material that was new to the Monk family, stuff that they didn’t know.

And you have so many myths that I was contending with, some small, some big. With the question of money, it’s true we did know that he struggled, but the story on Monk for so long in all the published work was that once he signed with Columbia Records, his fortunes increased. But when you actually look and follow the money—I mean, I had access to the correspondence, artist contracts, and things through [Columbia Record producer] Teo Macero, who left his papers to the New York Public Library. It’s a rich, rich archive. And that’s where you begin to see the money trail and begin to realize that, even at its height, even at the moment in the mid ’60s when Monk’s supposed to be making a lot, he’s still struggling. Better than some, but not nearly as well as we thought. So, if there is a subplot [to the biography], it is the almost-common story of even great musicians who never earn their value.

Feinstein: Inevitably—even in an expansive publication such as this—there’s some material that has to get cut. What was the heartbreaker for you? What was toughest to leave out?

Kelley: One of my favorite stories that I cut tremendously, which is not so much about Monk, is the story of the song “Eronel,” written for Lenore Gordon. I had a great interview with her, and I framed my discussion with an interlude; this was as a love story between Lenore Gordon and Sadik Hakim. There was a lot going on in their relationship that brought life to the song for me. But it really was a segue away from Monk, and so I cut that down substantially. In general, I had to give up stories that I couldn’t quite confirm and condense some stories, and I did lose the voices of people; I had substantial quotes, and I like when other people tell their stories, but for the sake of space I often had to summarize their stories.

The biggest passages that I lost were my discussion of the music. I would say two-thirds or more of what was dropped were descriptions and some analyses of Monk’s music, but my editor insisted that it was too technical. [Note: An example of the extracted musical analysis appears in the prose excerpts that precede this interview.] In fact, the little appendix was literally part of the text in the Minton’s chapter but he pulled it and said either delete or put it in an appendix (and make it shorter, which I did). I’m not dissatisfied with what I lost. I think the book was probably too long then. Obviously, if I had another year, it would be much better—but after that year, I would want another year.

Feinstein: You mention in your acknowledgments that Orrin Keepnews [Monk’s record producer at Riverside] refused to be interviewed. I’m assuming he was trying to protect his son’s project. [Peter Keepnews has been working on a Monk biography for decades.]

Kelley: I think that’s part of it, although he didn’t say that to me. [Pause.] I got the impression that he just didn’t particularly care for me—not personally (we’ve never met), but he’s protective not only of his son’s project but his [own] relationship to Thelonious. He has a particular narrative that he’s put out in his book [The View from Within, 1988] and in his liner notes, and there’s a concern that his narrative might be derailed in some ways. I guess everyone has a concern like that, so I don’t take it personally. But when I sent him my proposal and told him what I was going to do, he just had really disparaging words: “You, like everybody else, wants to write this book. You think you know about song titles, and half those titles he didn’t come up with himself.” There was a real defensiveness on his part. And I found it really unfortunate. I said, “Look, no matter what you think about me, I think it’s important for your voice to be heard to get the record straight.”

Feinstein: What would you have asked him?

Kelley: I would have followed up on a lot of the unanswered questions in The View from Within about exactly how he went about producing these records. Who made what decisions? Orrin Keepnews tends to present himself as the ultimate decision maker, even though Thelonious does have an opinion. His comment about Monk not really knowing Ellington’s music [prior to Monk’s first recording for Riverside, Monk Plays Ellington] and not being terribly enthusiastic even though it worked out really well—I’m a little skeptical of that. I’m interested in learning how Thelonious absorbed the music, even old music, like the way he absorbed “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” When you listen to those [private] tapes [of Monk practicing that tune], it sounds as though he really doesn’t know the song, but what he’s trying to do is figure it out, very slowly, one phrase at a time.

Feinstein: Deep exploration.

Kelley: Very deep. And these are things that Keepnews has seen, but he interprets them differently. So I wanted to get more detail about what he was seeing and hearing, and who the decision maker was. Compare, for example, Keepnews’s story about what happens in the recording booth at Riverside versus what I heard in those tapes from the 28th Street loft when Monk was rehearsing the band with Hall Overton. Hall Overton is a brilliant arranger whom Monk really respects, but it’s Monk who’s in control. It’s Monk saying, “This is what I want. This is how I want it.” He’s telling his musicians, “Don’t do that, do this.” That level of command in 1959, just as his period with Riverside is about to end—how could he go from having that kind of command with a big band and not having that level of command in the studio? So I question those relationships [reported by Keepnews].

What I really wanted to talk to him about were the things that I learned from Chris Albertson, who worked for Riverside Records and who had a completely different take on Monk’s relationship to Keepnews. Here’s Chris Albertson bursting the bubble in some ways, and I wanted Keepnews to have the opportunity to respond, but it never happened. And I’m sure he will respond. I’m sure there will be both letters and publications and lectures about the problems with my book, but I had to go with the evidence. I tried to be fair. I thought he wrote a really fine, fine piece on Monk in 1948. Keepnews, Paul Bacon, and, of course, Herbie Nichols were among the very few who really took Monk’s music seriously at that time. Keepnews respected Monk and he had a good ear, and that’s why I give him credit throughout the book for the role that he plays. But I also acknowledge those places of tension and struggle.

Feinstein: It often hinges on financial issues.

Kelley: Absolutely.

Feinstein: That’s where he comes off the worst, and one of the reasons I really wish he had agreed to an interview with you was that it’s been my understanding that the books were cooked by [Keepnews’s partner, Bill] Grauer.

Kelley: Yes, and I basically say that—that Grauer was behind that, and I don’t think Keepnews knew of this, or if he knew, it was too late. I also try to explain exactly what it is that Riverside did because it’s different than stealing from an artist; I don’t think they stole from the artists. What happened was they used all manner of methods to get investors to keep giving them money, and it was stretched too thin. So they’d print too many LPs to say, “Look at our record sales,” but the records would end up in discount bins.

Keepnews certainly wasn’t getting rich off of Monk. That’s a fact. I don’t think Grauer got rich, either. It was just bad business. Very bad business. And yet, I don’t think it was all that unusual. I mean, think about it: What record label in those periods had really good business practices, you know? [Both laugh.] I think it was typical, and they just got caught.

Feinstein: Do you feel comfortable talking honestly about the previous Monk biographies?

Kelley: Oh, sure.

Feinstein: In your seven pages of acknowledgments, you don’t mention the [English language] biographies on Monk.

Kelley: Well, the one I mention, and the one I cite the most, is the [Jacques] Ponzio and [Francois] Postiff book [Blue Monk: un Portrait de Thelonious, 1995]. For me, that book, which is still not translated in English, was the best Monk biography. I think Leslie Gourse’s book [Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelious Monk, 1997] is, in many ways, very problematic.

Feinstein: I think all her biographies are problematic.

Kelley: Yes. [Laughs.]

Feinstein: I think they’re slapped together with the magpie sensibility of a clever undergraduate.

Kelley: Exactly. It was slapped together. In fact, I know exactly what she did: She went to the Institute of Jazz Studies [at Rutgers University] and went through the vertical file. (You can tell this from certain footnotes in the book.) Then she got on the phone and called certain people. Some things actually never happened. For instance, she claims to have interviewed Nellie Monk, but that’s not true. I think she caught her backstage at some event and asked her one question, which Nellie might have answered in passing. Nellie wasn’t talking to anyone. I was the first person since Frank London Brown [in 1958] and Nat Hentoff [in 1960] to interview Nellie. And Nellie wasn’t giving me everything; I’ll certainly admit that, and I respect her for it. There are certain things she wanted to take with her.

The Laurent de Wilde book [Monk, 1996], for me, is a really quirky and interesting read. I didn’t learn anything [historical] from it, although I enjoyed it as his idiosyncratic romp through Monk, so I really couldn’t cite it. Thomas Fitterling published a German biography [Thelonious Monk: sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplaten, translated as Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, 1997]. It’s so interesting that the Europeans were more on the mark; Leslie Gourse wrote the first English-language bio of Monk, and it was terrible.

I once met Leslie Gourse. We were both receiving awards from the New York Public Library. I introduced myself—and this is before her book came out, so I didn’t know she had just finished a book on Monk—and said, “I’m writing a book on Monk.” And she said, “You don’t need to. I already did it. There’s no need to waste your time.”

Feinstein: Wow . . .

Kelley: It was pretty interesting . . .

But I can’t stress enough: Jacque Ponzio is a very fine scholar and someone who’s really generous. If I had a question, he was there. If I couldn’t find something, he’d help me find it. Another person who was really generous was Chris Sheridan [author of Brilliant Corners: A Bio-Discography of Thelonious Monk, 2001].

Feinstein: What an amazing source that is.

Kelley: It is an amazing source. Although I found many errors, I don’t blame him for those errors because they’re errors that I would have made had I been doing the discography [at that time], and hopefully, if another edition can come out, he can correct those. Just small things. And, again: He’s another European.

Feinstein: Among the people you acknowledge in your dedication—those who have, as you put it, joined the ancestors—you include the wonderful poet Sekou Sundiata [1948-2007]. He was such a beautiful spirit, and I was wondering if you would talk a bit about his gifts for music and language.

Kelley: Yes, yes. I am such a fan of Sekou’s work—his poetry, his performance, his rich musical sensibilities, that voice, his love of humanity. We were supposed to meet first at Dartmouth College, where I was giving a lecture, but he got in a terrible car accident. We eventually met later at Dartmouth when he spoke to my class, and I recognized immediately that, besides all of his other great talents, he was a wonderful teacher who cared about people irrespective of their race, gender, or age. He cared about all people.

His one-man show [Blessing the Boats] about his kidney transplant struggled with the question of death. He’s one of these amazing poets who can be rooted in his own culture, tradition, time, and place, yet speak with a universal voice. No matter what your generation, you could understand the pain, humor, and possibilities in the story that he tells. One thing I really feel sad about: When Sekou was working on The Fifty-first (Dream) State, he had asked me to be the historical consultant. We talked a lot about the project; he was very moved by 911, and I got to know Sekou very well. (I mention him in my book Freedom Dreams. For me, he is one of the unsung surrealists, even if he did not identify himself in that way.) And then I moved to California and we didn’t follow up on the project. He ended up doing it, and it was absolutely stunning. But to lose Sekou . . . In my mind, he was one of the readers of this book—he and Ted Joans. There were a number of poets who really shaped my approach to this project and who I interviewed, poets who either knew Monk or wrote about Monk: Jayne Cortez, Ted Joans.

Feinstein: [Amiri] Baraka’s prominently mentioned.

Kelley: Exactly. These are folks who are also inspired by Monk.

It’s interesting—I don’t know if I ever told you this—but when I first started this project, it took about five years before the Monk family, especially Thelonious Monk, Jr., gave me the green light. And in those five years, I had come up with a different project altogether about Monk. This is why I was reading all your work: I was going to write a book about Monk’s meaning in American culture—and not just American culture but cultures around the world. I wanted to know about the poets, the painters. And, yes, the other musicians, but not primarily the musicians. Writers like Julio Cortázar. All these people who are writing about, from, and in a space of Monk. I was collecting all this material. What does Monk mean to post-war culture? I was actually halfway done with that book, and then once I connected with the [Monk] family, I scrapped it. I thought I’d be able to slip that into the book [Thelonious Monk], but all that material started to take away from the central story.

Feinstein: But it’s not lost; it’s just a separate book.

Kelley: It’s a separate book, yeah. And that’s one of the things I love about [the journal] Brilliant Corners: Monk is not just a CD. He’s not just in the live music. He is in art and literature; there’s so much you can talk about in terms of the influence of Monk. It’s wide open.

Feinstein: In the book, you mention your first encounter with the Monk family, how you left feeling that you didn’t know Monk at all. What did you mean by that?

Kelley: Well, I sat there and listened to Thelonious, Jr.—Toot—tell stories that I had never heard before: stories of his own childhood, stories that had been passed on to him. And that’s when it struck me: I’m working on a book about the constructions of Monk, the inventions of Monk, Monk in the cultural ether, and yet, the real man and his world was so much more fascinating than all the anecdotes. In some ways, it was much more complicated; in others, there was a certain simplicity, which begged to be heard. With a lot of iconic figures, we demand something more extraordinary. Whether you call this eccentricity or something larger than life, it’s something we’re looking for. Things that make them special. But for me, what was striking was Monk and the mundane: Monk changing his daughter’s diapers; Monk getting up in the morning and drinking his concoction of raw egg and milk; Monk putting on his driving gloves and driving like a maniac on the other side of the street. These are the things that for me make him more human and provide the ground for his own writing. What was his writing about? His writing is about trying to capture those close to him. So many of his songs are written for people who are related to him by blood, or who are friends. I mean, this is a man who, as far as I know—and I did so much research—only dated three women in his life, and they all lived within about a two-block radius! [Both laugh.] He’s like, “This is my world,” and I had to sort of get inside that world—inside the mundane and the everyday—to understand how he and the people around him operated. So the larger-than-life extraordinary aspects, which people often look for, ceased to be as interesting as the everyday and mundane.

Feinstein: You spoke to his wife, Nellie; his brother, Thomas; a huge range of family and friends. You spoke to his son, Toot. What would you have asked Barbara [Boo Boo, Monk’s other child, who died in 1983]?

Kelley: Well, she was always a mystery to me, but I would have asked her basically the same questions I asked Toot: “I want to know your story from the beginning. What are your earliest memories of your father?” I would have asked her about the piano lessons that he gave her, because she played a little bit of piano. (Her cousin, Jackie, a wonderful pianist for whom “Jackie-ing” was written, also gave her some musical support.) I would have asked about her love of dance and if she remembered the days when she was at the Village Vanguard; she was four years old, dancing onstage to her father’s music. I would have asked her what it meant to go away to boarding school for the first time and what it felt to be one of the very few African American children—and a girl at that. I would have asked how did she feel when her brother, in some ways, became the anointed one. I don’t want to make too much of that, but he was the one they were pushing to play with their father, to be Monk’s drummer, to be the next Thelonious Monk—when at the very same time, Boo Boo is dancing with [pianist] Randy Weston. She’s dancing with Chuck Davis’s dance troupe. She’s making a name and a life for herself as a significant cultural figure. I would also ask her about her decision to try to preserve the history of San Juan Hill and her father’s legacy, and how she felt when it fell upon her to do so. She was the catalyst more than anyone else. But I would have a million questions. I did everything I could to take her out of the ether, but she was probably the biggest mystery in terms of the immediate family.

Feinstein: There are plenty of mysteries just within Thelonious Monk himself.

Kelley: Absolutely.

Feinstein: One of the moving aspects of your biography has to do with the feeling of constant repair: how Monk’s life kept becoming fractured by various kinds of adversity—his physical and mental health, the fires that ravaged his apartment, the financial struggles, prison, and so on. During the fourteen years that you took to make this biography, you went through a great deal, too: new job, new coast [Kelley moved from Columbia University to the University of Southern California]. A divorce and a new marriage. You got hit by a car. Did these tumultuous experiences create a greater empathy for Monk’s struggles?

Kelley: Oh, yeah. In fact, there are times when I think I was supposed to deal with all that—although not because it paralleled Monk’s experience. For me, each moment of adversity produced great things for the book. Literally.

I’ve got to tell you a really good story about getting hit by that car. I wish I had put it in the book. I was writing the foreword to Freedom Dreams—the very last part of the book—when 911 happened. I was living downtown and looking out my window at the World Trade Centers when bang. So that was September, and it was really traumatic. Then on November 9th, I put the final touches on the manuscript and sent it off that morning. I said, “My God, I can’t believe it—I’m actually going to get back to Monk again,” because I had been away from the project for a while. So I went to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, my first day working with Mary Lou Williams’s papers—a wonderful collection.

Feinstein: Yes indeed.

Kelley: Oh my God. So I’m there all day long. It’s the first time getting my fingers dirty again in an archive, and one of the things I find are receipts that she had from Nellie for seamstress work that she did for Mary Lou. Outside, it’s a beautiful day. I pull out my cell phone and call Nellie, because I used to call her and check in. So tell her I’ve found the receipts and I say, “This is just so exciting!” And she says, “Oh . . . I can’t stand that Mary Lou Williams.” I say, “What? Say that again?” “I can’t stand that Mary Lou Williams. She is such a witch. She stole from me, and she complaining about the dresses not fitting her right and she not wanting to pay me. I can’t stand that Mary Lou Williams.” [Feinstein laughs.] She’s going on and on—and this is Nellie, right? Nellie, whom we imagine to be, like, the help maid, but she’s cursing her out! [Feinstein laughs.] She’s gone! And this is exciting for me because this is the most animated that Nellie’s ever been with me. I hang up the phone, put it in my pocket, step off the curb, walk two steps, and, boom!, get hit by a car. I’m flying in the air of downtown Newark. I felt like I was floating as high as this ceiling, and I hear from the streets a collective, “Oh, shit . . .” Then, boom! I’m knocked out; I wake up; cops are there. I’m taken to the hospital. I’m pretty roughed up, but I’m okay.

I get home, and the next day I get a call from Nellie. Somehow she’d heard about the accident, and Nellie is a healer. She devoted the second half of her life to healing others through natural juices. She says, “Oh, Robin. I heard you got hit by a car. Are you okay?” She’s really concerned. I go, “Yeah, yeah.” (I’m on Vicodin, so I’m a little hazy.) She asks what happened, and I explain that this woman was making a left-hand turn, trying to beat the traffic, and she didn’t see me in the crosswalk. Nellie asks, “What kind of woman was this?” I said, “Young, black woman.” She says, “Well, did she get out of the car to help you?” I said, “No, she just stayed in the car. I had cops there.” And she said, “Just like Mary Lou Williams! Mary Lou Williams will run you over and leave you in the gutter!” [Feinstein laughs loudly.] “Just like that Mary Lou Williams!” Meanwhile, I’m laughing like crazy, though I’m in so much pain, but she’s dead serious: “The only person who could of done that was someone like Mary Lou Williams.” [Both laugh.]

But you know, because I was down—because I lost a year of work with two surgeries—Nellie began sending me stuff: little concoctions, stuff to put on my knee post-surgery. She had a certain kind of sympathy for me, and that sympathy translated into a deeper trust. It’s almost as though she got to know me better as a result of my getting hit. That’s when I got access to the storage facility and literally dug through piles and piles of trash to pull out a lot of stuff that I was able to find—stuff they didn’t know they had. So that was a blessing in disguise.

Knowing Monk’s adversity had a greater impact on me than dealing with my own. It’s hard to explain, but all my adversities were linked to great things. Sure, I got divorced—but I married this most amazing, incredibly talented, beautiful woman. Throughout all this stuff, I was able to get the book done. In working on Monk, I felt I was able to discover my self, so I don’t feel as though I’ve dealt with any adversity. I had certain challenges, but to read Monk’s story, and to write Monk’s story, was hard because I thought he never got a break, you know? You keep asking yourself, “What if psychiatry had been in a better place and had given him the proper diagnosis and support? What if record companies were fair places, and it wasn’t about capitalism and exploitation but about making good music? What if all the sidemen and musicians that he wanted to play with had actually been available to him? What if his nephew hadn’t overdosed, and what if heroin hadn’t been flooding the Bronx and Harlem? If all these things had been different, what would he have produced?

I’m not one who believes that the lower you are and the more troubled you are somehow equates to someone who produces genius. I’m like, “You makin’ it in spite of that,” you know? So that was hard for me to take, and my wife, LisaGay Hamilton, when she read the manuscript she kept writing, “Ugh! Ugh!” Every time he was on the verge of something good: Ugh. He’s got a gig in 1948 at the Royal Roost; life is finally working and—[Kelley slaps his hands]—he’s arrested for marijuana possession. Gets his cabaret card back, coming off this great long gig with Coltrane, moving into 1958 with a new quartet with Charlie Rouse—[Kelley slaps his hands again]—beaten by police in Delaware and loses his cabaret card again. These are the kinds of things that make you think, “Dang, when will it change?” That was harder for me than whatever I had to deal with.

Feinstein: Your book keeps pushing towards the racial politics of the time, even though Monk himself seemed to push against political conversations. If that hadn’t been the case with Monk—if, for example, he described [his composition] “Brilliant Corners” as representing oppression for the slow half and liberation during the double-time feel—would you hear his music differently?

Kelley: That’s an excellent question . . . I think it’s possible that I would hear it differently. You know, it’s interesting—you’ve hit on a key theme in what I was trying to struggle with, and that is, sometimes what you hear is Monk’s music filtered through the background noise. In some respects, I think Monk’s resistance to talk about race had much to do with the fact that it was so ever-present. In other words, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at the moment when the whole future of America rested on what was then called “The Negro Question,” every artist—every entertainer and intellectual who was black—was always asked the question, “What about the racial issue?” So I think the fact that he’s always asked the question led him, in some ways, to push back. And his position was pretty clear. He said, “Look, my vocation is a musician, and as a musician I make music.” That’s not to say he doesn’t care about the world, but he kept saying that if you wanted to know the answer to those questions, you ask someone whose vocation is racial politics. And that’s something that’s relevant today. When you’re going to have a big debate about race in American and you’ve got Spike Lee as your spokesperson, then you’ve got to ask the question, “What about the people whose job it is, as social movement activists or scholars, to raise these issues?” I think Monk pushed back against it precisely because it was so visible, and yet he was the first one to appear at those benefits for CORE and SNCC [Congress of Racial Equality and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee]. He had a very clear sense of racial politics not “for the race” but racial politics as justice for all. His whole thing was about fairness: if the black man is going to use hatred or exploit a situation, that’s just as bad as anybody else. He was against anyone who lived on injustice.

There’s a moment in the book when I quote at length his interview with Val Wilmer, who was so generous to share that original tape. In that conversation, he pushes back not just about talking about race and racial politics, but against the idea that somehow he ought to be obligated to the needs and struggles of other people. He says over and over again, “Look, I’ve got a family to feed. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Why should I be worrying about what’s going on around the corner?” And then there’s kind of an abrupt switch where he says, “Well, these are things I don’t like about America: The police beat you for no reason.” He’s saying this at a time when the cities of America are burning over questions about police brutality; police brutality becomes the catalyst for all these uprisings that he’s very much aware of. So in some ways, he’s aware and concerned, but his concern is not what people expected it should be. Even the statements that were attributed to him he was ambivalent about, like the fact that he backpedaled from the statement he made to Frank London Brown [for DownBeat where Monk was quoted as saying he “would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro”]: “I would never say anything like that. That’s crazy.” But I really do believe he said that. Everything is situational. Time and place. There are moments when these things are so palpable for him. When he’s sitting there and watching the march on Washington, and he turns to his long-time manager, Harry Colomby, and says, “You know, I think I contributed enough. I don’t have to be there to march.” He’s thinking, “Well, what did I do?” He really wants to participate, and that’s why he would do these benefits. On the other hand, it’s striking that he would watch the march on Washington and, a week later, suffer the loss of his nephew to another struggle: the presence of heroin. So when he says, “I can’t worry about what’s going on around the corner because I’ve got my own problems,” he does have his own problems. They’re problems that are social, problems that are political, problems that are tied to bigger things, but they affect him directly, and in his heart, because he’s always been a family guy. So what I tried to do is understand that these are his politics. It’s not an accident that he’s going to do a benefit for the Morningside Community Center, or the very local community centers, because these are centers that help local folks, yet he’s not going down to Alabama. It’s still politics. It’s still liberatory.

Feinstein: I have to ask the question that you’ll be asked ad infinitum: Do you feel drawn to write another astonishing biography?

Kelley: I don’t think I’ll ever write another biography. Otherwise, I may not make it. But if I did have the energy, I’ll tell you the person who I just adore and find so interesting: Eric Dolphy. He’s a very different person, and there’s some stuff on Dolphy but no great biography. I’ve always been a little sad that Dolphy and Monk never got together [to record], as much as Dolphy loved Monk. But this is my first and last biography. It really wore me out. There are so many challenges. One, as I said, is getting material. Another is trying to sum up a life. People always ask me, “What is the big significance?” I’ll do radio shows and such, and they don’t really care about the big picture; they only care about the summary.

One of my challenges was to stay in the story and keep Monk centered, and yet bring everyone else into the story who are shaping his life. I had to accept the fact that by the end of it, except for his injunction that everyone needs to be original, I couldn’t make the one-sentence summary. I don’t have the sound bite that says, “This is how you sum up Monk.” He resisted that, and he resisted that in the music. You know this better than anyone: Every time you read something where people say, “He always played in between the beats.” Well, no! [Feinstein laughs.] Or, “He always played angular lines.” Well, sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t. Every time you think you’ve figured it out, he’s going to do something else. Every possibility is there. It’s when you take the whole that you can feel it. That’s why I love poetry. Sometimes you just can’t find the sentence, the prose, that can express what this music means. It’s visceral. It’s emotional. Sometimes it’s completely ineffable. And that’s why it’s music.

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