Feature

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley

Robin D.G. Kelley’s "textured, thorough, and knowing” portrait shatters the myths surrounding the “George Washington of bebop.”

(Free Press, 588 pages, $30)

The time has come for jazz fans to admit that Thelonious Monk was not as weird as they wish he’d been, said Ben Ratliff in The New York Times. Sure, the “George Washington of bebop” exhibited enough eccentric behavior throughout his life to keep his latest biographer busy. Monk favored oddball hats. During shows he sometimes got off the piano bench and danced in circles. But the groundbreaking composer and performer wasn’t a primitive, an “inexplicable mad genius,” or a reclusive “artiste.” His style of performance was certainly eccentric, a cocktail of “crabbed chord voicings and brusque repetitions” that generated a sound no one had ever heard before. But, as Robin D.G. Kelley’s “omnibus of myth-busting” demonstrates, Monk was a well-trained musician and devoted family man, who happened to be plagued by an undiagnosed psychiatric condition.

Monk’s shaky mental state clearly frustrated those nearest to him, though never so much that he lacked for loving support, said Steve Greenlee in The Boston Globe. Born in North Carolina in 1917, he moved to New York City at age 4, when his mother decided that her children needed better schooling. He met the girl who would become his hugely devoted wife when both were teenagers. By then, Monk had already studied classical piano and begun to move beyond it. He would eventually drop out of his elite public high school to join a traveling band, his style apparently already distinguished by unconventional harmonies and a signature jagged phrasing. While still in his mid-20s, he became the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, helping to create bebop’s ground zero. But steady work was not to follow.

Lasting acclaim only arrived in the 1960s, which was nearly too late, said John Kehe in The Christian Science Monitor. Monk’s mental illness by then had taken a toll, and “the joy and spirit of this man who had lived to play was less and less in evidence” onstage and at home. Since Monk’s 1982 death, his family has rarely spoken of this, said August Kleinzahler in The New York Times. But they opened up to Kelley and the result is a “hugely effective” work. Though there surely will be “more elegantly written” Monk portraits to come, “I doubt there will be a biography anytime soon that is as textured, thorough, and knowing.”

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