[Marxism] New Monk biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 16 08:11:12 MDT 2009

NY Times, October 18, 2009
Monk’s Moods

The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D. G. Kelley
Illustrated. 588 pp. Free Press. $30

Thelonious Monk, the great American jazz artist, during the first half 
of his jun­ior year at Stuyvesant High School in New York, showed up in 
class only 16 out of 92 days and received zeros in every one of his 
subjects. His mother, Barbara Monk, would not have been pleased. She had 
brought her three children to New York from North Carolina, effectively 
leaving behind her husband, who suffered bad health, and raising the 
family on her own, in order that they might receive a proper education. 
But Mrs. Monk, like a succession of canny, tough-minded, loving and very 
indulgent women in Thelonious Monk’s life, understood that her middle 
child had a large gift and was put on this earth to play piano. 
Presently, her son was off on a two-year musical tour of the United 
States, playing a kind of sanctified R & B piano in the employ, with the 
rest of his small band, of a traveling woman evangelist.

The brilliant pianist Mary Lou Williams, seven years Monk’s senior and 
working at the time for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy orchestra, heard Monk 
play at a late-night jam session in Kansas City in 1935. Monk, born in 
1917, would have been 18 or so at the time. When not playing to the 
faithful, he sought out the musical action in centers like Kansas City. 
Williams would later claim that even as a teenager, Monk ­“really used 
to blow on piano. . . . He was one of the original modernists all right, 
playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he’s playing now.”

It was those harmonies — with their radical, often dissonant chord 
voicings, along with the complex rhythms, “misplaced” accents, startling 
shifts in dynamics, hesitations and silences — that, even in embryonic 
form, Williams was hearing for the first time. It’s an angular, 
splintered sound, percussive in attack and asymmetrical, music that 
always manages to swing hard and respect the melody. Monk was big on 
melody. Thelonious Monk’s body of work, as composer and player (the jazz 
critic Whitney Balliett called Monk’s compositions “frozen . . . 
improvisations” and his improvisations “molten . . . compositions”), 
sits as comfortably beside Bartok’s Hungarian folk-influenced 
compositions for solo piano as it does beside the music of jazz giants 
like James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington, some of the more 
obvious influences on Monk. It’s unclear how much of Bartok he listened 
to. Monk did know well and play Rach­maninoff, Liszt and Chopin 
(especially Chopin). Stravinsky was also a favorite.

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. At the 
age of 11, he was taught by Simon Wolf, an Austrian émigré who had 
studied under the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. Wolf told 
the parent of another student, after not too many sessions with young 
Thelonious: “I don’t think there will be anything I can teach him. He 
will go beyond me very soon.” But the direction the boy would go in, 
after two years of classical lessons, was jazz.

Monk was well enough known and appreciated in his lifetime to have 
appeared on the cover of the Feb. 28, 1964, issue of Time magazine. He 
was 46 at the time, and after many years of neglect and scuffling had 
become one of the principal faces and sounds of contemporary jazz. The 
Time article, by Barry Farrell, is, given the vintage and target 
audience, well done, both positive and fair, and accurate in the main. 
But it does make much of its subject’s eccentricities, and refers to 
Monk’s considerable and erratic drug and alcohol use. This last would 
have raised eyebrows in the white middle-class America of that era.

Throughout the book, Kelley plays down Monk’s “weirdness,” or at least 
contextualizes it. But Monk did little to discourage the popular view of 
him as odd. Always a sharp dresser and stickler for just the right look, 
he also favored a wide array of unconventional headgear: astrakhan, 
Japa­nese skullcap, Stetson, tam-o’-shanter. He had a trickster sense of 
humor, in life and in music, and he loved keeping people off-balance in 
both realms. Off-balance was the plane on which Monk existed. He also 
liked to dance during group perform­ances, but this served very real 
functions: first, as a method of conducting, communicating musical 
instructions to the band members; and second, to let them know that he 
dug their playing when they were in a groove and swinging.

Even early in his career, Monk often insisted on showing up late to 
gigs, driving bandleaders, club owners and audiences to distraction. And 
on occasion he would simply fall asleep at the piano. He would also 
disappear to his room in the family apartment for two weeks at a time. 
When he was young, these behaviors or idiosyncrasies were tolerated and, 
more or less, manageable. But the manic, erratic behavior turned out to 
be the precursor of a more serious bipolar illness that would over time 
become immobilizing. From his father, Thelonious Sr., who was gone from 
the scene by the time Monk was 11, Thelonious Jr. seems to have gotten 
his musical gene (there always seems to be one in there). But he also 
inherited his father’s illness. Monk Sr. was committed to the State 
Hospital for the Colored Insane in Goldsboro, N.C., at the age of 52, in 
1941. He never left.

Kelley, the author of “Race Rebels” and other books, makes use of the 
“carpet bombing” method in this biography. It is not pretty, or terribly 
selective, but it is thorough and hugely effective. He knows music, 
especially Monk’s music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and 
live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are 
handled expertly. The familiar episodes of Monk’s career are all well 
covered: the years as house pianist at Minton’s after-hours club in 
Harlem, which served as an incubator for the new “modern music,” later 
to be called bebop; the brilliant “Genius of Modern Music” sessions for 
Blue Note, Monk’s first recordings with him as the bandleader; the drug 
bust, where Monk took the rap for Bud Powell and lost his New York 
cabaret license for six years; his triumphant return in 1957 with his 
quartet, featuring John Coltrane, at the Five Spot; the ter­rible 
beating Monk took for resisting arrest in New Castle, Del.; the final 
dissolution and breakdown. Likewise, the characters in Monk’s life and 
career are well served: his fellow musicians; his family; his friend and 
benefactor, the fascinating Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter, the “jazz 
baroness,” at whose home in Weehawken, N.J., Monk spent his final years. 
He would die, after a long silence, in 1982, in the arms of his wife, 

Musicians — particularly jazz musicians of Monk’s period, and most 
especially Monk, taciturn and gnomic in utterance by nature — tend not, 
as writers do, to write hundreds of letters sharing with intimates what 
is going on in their hearts or heads. A biography of Monk, perforce, has 
to rely on the not always reliable, often conflicting, memories of 
others. Instinct is involved, surely as much as perspicacity, in sifting 
through the mass of observation and anecdote. The Monk family appears to 
have shared private material with Kelley that had hitherto been 
unavailable. This trust was not misplaced. There will be shapelier and 
more elegantly written biographies to come — Monk, the man and the 
music, is an endlessly fascinating subject — but 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. h

August Kleinzahler’s most recent book is “Music: I-LXXIV,” a collection 
of essays.

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