The Book

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” So ranted Thelonious Sphere Monk, who proved his point every time he sat down at the keyboard. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest composers. Yet throughout much of his life, his musical contribution took a backseat to tales of his reputed behavior. Writers tended to obsess over Monk’s hats or his proclivity to dance on stage. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or child-like. But, these labels tell us little about the man or his music.

In the first book on Thelonious Monk based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, as well as a decade of prodigious research, prize-winning historian Robin D. G. Kelley brings to light a startlingly different Thelonious Monk–witty, intelligent, generous, family-oriented, politically engaged, brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Indeed, Thelonious Monk is essentially a love story. It is a story of familial love, beginning with Monk’s enslaved descendants from whom Thelonious inherited an appreciation for community, freedom, and black traditions of sacred and secular song. It is about a doting mother who scrubbed floors to pay for piano lessons and encouraged her son to follow his dream. It is the story of romance, from Monk’s initial heartbreaks to his life-long commitment to his muse, the extraordinary Nellie Monk. And it is about his unique friendship with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a scion of the famous Rothschild family whose relationship with Monk and other jazz musicians has long been the subject of speculation and rumor. Nellie, Nica, and various friends and family sustained Monk during the long periods of joblessness, bipolar episodes, incarceration, health crises, and other tragic and difficult moments.

Above all, Thelonious Monk is the gripping saga of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz’s most original composer.

***Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, Best Non-Fiction Book

***Best Book about Jazz 2009, Jazz Journalists Association

***Music in American Culture Award, American Musicological Association

***PEN Open Book Award, PEN American Center

***ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award

***Finalist, 2010 PEN USA Literary Award

***Ambassador Award for Book of Special Distinction, English Speaking Union

***Booklist – Starred Review

***Selected by New York Times Book Review – Top 100 books of 2009

***Selected by San Francisco Gate – Top 100 books of 2009

Advance Praise for Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“Robin Kelley’s new biography Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is a breath of fresh air among the biographies of our legendary jazz musicians. This book is thorough, detailed and written with a true affinity for Monk’s humaneness and creative musical output. It fills in the missing pieces about the growth of the jazz scene in New York through the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, detailing each step of TSM’s development – who passed through his bands, what gigs he played and what happened on those scenes. It’s an invaluable and close look at the center of the world’s most important creative musical developments in these decades: New York City.”

—Chick Corea

Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is one of the most anticipated books in jazz scholarship, and well worth the wait. Robin D. G. Kelley represents one of this generation’s most important voices equipped with the knowledge, passion and respect for both jazz and jazz musicians required to interpret the many details and nuances of Thelonious Monk’s life. This compelling book will both challenge old assumptions and inspire new assessments of the life and legacy one of the world’s greatest musicians.”

—Geri Allen, pianist/composer, Associate Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation, University Of Michigan

“Powerful, enraging and enduring. . . . In Robin Kelley’s finely grained and surely definitive life-and-times study, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original, has found an original biographer.”

—David Levering Lewis, biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois and Pulitzer Prize winner

“An honest and eloquent treatment of one of our most important artists, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is a stunning tour de force! It is the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date. Furthermore, in Monk’s story, Kelley has found the perfect medium to shed light on a nation’s, and a people’s, history and persistent quest for freedom. In so doing he has given us a book that is as bold, brilliant and beautiful as Monk and his music.”

—Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday


Robin D.G. Kelley. . . comes closer than anyone ever has in attempting to find out exactly who Monk was. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is 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, Boston Globe

Robin D. G. Kelley, in his extraordinary and heroically detailed new biography, “Thelonious Monk,” makes a large point time and time again that Monk was no primitive, as so many have characterized him. . . . .  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, New York Times Book Review

This first full-dress biography of Thelonious Sphere Monk, legendary jazz pianist, prolific and vastly influential composer, and one of the creators, in the 1940s (along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), of the revolutionary new music called bebop, is nothing short of a landmark in jazz literature. . . .  Kelley brings Monk alive for those who have heard and loved his music for generations. “Jazz is my adventure,” Monk said. “I’m after new chords . . . how to use notes differently.” Kelley gives us that adventure in the epic scope it deserves.

Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

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. . . .  Kelley presents the clearest biographical picture yet of a man who was certainly a genius and may have been eccentric, but who was also both more complex and more a product of his times than those descriptors indicate.

–Library Journal

Kelley’s understanding of Monk is multilayered, markedly different from the cracked-brain genius he was often marketed as. His sometimes erratic behavior is attributed to undiagnosed bipolar disorder, while his long relationship with wealthy baroness and benefactor Pannonica de Koenigswarter is once and for all revealed to be platonic. If every icon deserves at least one definitive bio, it’s official: Monk now has his.

–K. Leander Williams, Time Out Magazine

This exhaustively researched work will undoubtedly now remain the definitive work on Monk, a rebel with a cause. Listen to virtually any of the recordings he left, and it should become beautifully clear what that cause was: timeless music.

–Steve Heilig, San Francisco Chronicle

Miles Davis made more money. Duke Ellington was more prolific. Charlie Parker was more revered. But no one had a more profound impact on modern jazz than Thelonious Monk. The legendary pianist/composer with the strange hats and even stranger moniker (his given name) has finally become the subject of the kind of meticulously researched biography that lesser lights were afforded long ago. The enigmatic Monk is a tough nut to crack, to be sure, but what fascinating and delicious rewards await inside Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin D.G. Kelley’s illuminating biography. . . .

This affectionate biography fills in the fascinating and heart-wrenching backstory of an artist the world has always longed to know better.

–John Kehe, Christian Science Monitor