[Marxism] More on new Monk bio
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
By BEN RATLIFF
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
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.
“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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