[Marxism] More on new Monk bio

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Oct 17 09:06:37 MDT 2009

The New York Times
October 17, 2009
Misterioso No More: Book Debunks Image of a Jazz Giant

Let’s say goodbye forever to an old jazz myth: Thelonious Monk as 
inexplicable mad genius.

Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of 
an American Original,” just published by Free Press, is an omnibus of 
myth-busting. It holds the largest amount of helpful, uncaricatured 
information about Monk in one place and goes a long way to correct a 
reductive understanding of Monk as a person, if not necessarily Monk as 
an artist, that has persisted for more than 60 years.

In 1947 the photographer and occasional journalist William Gottlieb 
wrote an excited article for Down Beat magazine, suggesting that Monk — 
then 29 — was “the George Washington of be-bop,” although “few have ever 
seen him.” Several months later Blue Note issued a provocative news 
release with Monk’s first 78 r.p.m. record.

“A shy and elusive person,” it read, “Thelonious has been surrounded by 
an aura of mystery, but [it is] simply because he considers the piano 
the most important thing in his life and can become absorbed in 
composing that people, appointments and the world pass by unnoticed.” It 
went on, “Among musicians, Thelonious’s name is treated with respect and 
awe, for he is a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all 
who hear him.”

Monk’s records didn’t sell well immediately, but the myth did. In the 
years to come the character sketches of Monk snowballed into a 
generalized perception of him as aloof, mystical and somewhat childish. 
It’s a chicken-or-egg question, about Monk’s eccentric behavior versus 
how it was interpreted — but Mr. Kelley asserts that the “mystery” 
reputation became almost a professional liability. (In the late 1940s — 
while making some of the greatest recordings in all of jazz — he and his 
wife were destitute.) Monk sometimes tried to dispel the myth in 
interviews, but ultimately lost interest.

Nobody faults Monk for his musicianship anymore, and his harmonic 
language has been fully absorbed into jazz’s mainstream. But there are 
still questions. Why did his music sound that way, with crabbed chord 
voicings and brusque repetitions, somewhere between stride-piano-fulsome 
and bebop-jagged? Why did he come to a creative cul-de-sac in the 1960s, 
with so many indifferent performances and a falling-off in the output of 
new compositions?

What was the nature of his relationship with Baroness Pannonica de 
Koenigswarter, or Nica, his friend and occasional patron from 1954 until 
his death in 1982? Why did he get up and dance in circles during 
performances? And what exactly was his psychological condition?

Mr. Kelley, who has spent this week and last in New York in a run of 
events surrounding the book’s publication, has a list of refutations to 
make. “The main ones,” he said in an interview this week, “are that Monk 
was disengaged and unaware of his surroundings. I argue that he was 
incredibly engaged with his family, friends and music; he was in the 

Two, that he and Nica had anything but a platonic relationship. I argue 
that he wasn’t as dependent on her as it seemed. Three, that 
descriptions of him as childlike and taciturn were completely wrong.”

Possibly most important of all the perceptions to combat, Mr. Kelley 
said, “was that Monk was an ‘artiste,’ a reclusive personality.”

“He wanted to get a hit,” Mr. Kelley continued. “He wanted to make 
money. It wasn’t about fame; it was about a working musician who 
believes that you could take a pure piece of music and get people to buy 

To prove his points over the 14 years spent researching and writing his 
book, Mr. Kelley, 47, a professor of history and American studies at the 
University of Southern California, resolved to humanize Monk. He traced 
Monk’s family back to his 18th-century ancestors in eastern North 
Carolina. But he also took advantage of some of the newer public 
resources in jazz scholarship, as well as some of its private troves.

He spoke to every one of Monk’s surviving relatives who knew him to talk 
about his character in general, his reactions to specific events in 
history and his career. (Other writers and researchers had talked to 
members of the Monk family, but none to so many.) Their comments create 
the binding glue of the book, a composite of how Monk saw the world, how 
and why he engaged and disengaged with it.

Mr. Kelley had rare access to some of the home tapes of jam sessions and 
conversations made by Nica. For a recounting of Monk’s public reception, 
he scoured not just the American jazz press but also black newspapers 
and publications from countries including Poland, Japan, Sweden and the 

And he found valuable information in some sources that have only 
recently come to light: the papers of Teo Macero, one of Monk’s record 
producers, and of Mary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist; and in the 3,000 
hours of audio tapes made by the photographer W. Eugene Smith at a New 
York loft building where Monk rehearsed.

Mr. Kelley also took over the rental of a Monk family storage space in 
downtown Manhattan, containing old clothes, Monk’s LP collection, 
medical records and hotel bills and one of his original arrangements, 
written in pencil.

Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr., acted as the gatekeeper to the family’s 
cooperation, Mr. Kelley said. But the key was Nellie Monk, Thelonious 
Monk’s wife, protector and day-to-day factotum, who generally did not 
give interviews, and took five years to be convinced of the worth of Mr. 
Kelley’s project.

“Without Nellie’s cooperation, I couldn’t have written the book,” Mr. 
Kelley said. She connected him with Monk’s cousins, nieces and nephews, 
and also with her own cousin, the psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lou Smith, who 
had helped Nellie with her own physical ailments. Dr. Smith knew about 
Monk’s history with Thorazine, which he had first been prescribed by 
doctors at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts in 1959, and she 
helped Mr. Kelley sharpen his understanding of Monk’s bipolar disorder.

In the fall of 2001 Mr. Kelley, then working at Columbia University, was 
struck by a car, breaking his leg and damaging his knees. He had to 
resort to teaching from his apartment sofa, and it took two years before 
he could walk without a cane. But it was during that period that Nellie 
Monk, he said, truly became involved in the project.

“Nellie’s sympathy for me ran so deep that every day she’d call me up 
and ask me how I’m doing,” he said. “She’d tell me about tea and juice 
that I should be drinking. Our connection centered around my healing. I 
became one of her patients.” She was nearing 80.

Mr. Kelley has one persistent regret. Ms. Monk had already talked on the 
record, but invited him over to her son’s house in June 2002 for what 
she promised would be a much more extensive interview on a Friday. She 
fell ill the day before the interview, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage 
the following Tuesday.

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