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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Robin D. G. Kelley

(Simon & Schuster; US: Oct 2009)

Despite an enormous recorded legacy, anyone trying to look past Thelonious Monk’s music to understand its creator’s soul finds an enormous amount of silence.  His friends and family were protective of a man misunderstood and living with bipolar disorder.  The written profiles of the day favored the myth over the man, and presented caricatures built on stereotypes.  His record labels only fueled the distortion.  “Mad Monk” sold records.


Writing about black lives has always been a matter of listening to the silences.  It’s confronting the “X” that represents lost African names during slavery, imagining the would-be-manuscripts of those forbidden to read and write, and reconstructing truths that would have been unspeakable under the threat of White terrorism.  In his anxiously awaited portrait, Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley shows his genius in penetrating those silences.  Beyond the 14 years of study, the new interviews, the access to unreleased tapes, and the blessing of the Monk family, it’s Kelley’s ability to listen to what’s not there that turns an otherwise intriguing piece of research into a masterpiece of musical biography.


Kelley begins tracing Monk’s lineage back four generations to slavery in North Carolina.  That experience, as well as emancipation, sits in the family background of nearly every black jazz musician, but rarely do biographers explore how that may have shaped their lives and music.  Kelley makes the case that the move from slavery to freedom meant that for Monk’s family, liberty was priceless.  Kelley suggests it was no coincidence that freedom was the core aesthetic of Monk’s music.


Kelley goes beyond the stories of young Monk to reconstruct the essence of the San Juan Hill neighborhood where Monk grew up and lived almost his entire life.  This slice of Manhattan’s west 60s had been the hub of black New York before Harlem was fully established.  Kelley describes the close-knit community that developed among the families in the area, the importance of the local community center, and the violence Monk encountered on the street.  San Juan Hill was also the site of Monk’s earliest musical influences.  From interviews with a fellow student and a descendent of his first piano teachers, we get a clear sense of the influence of classical and stride piano styles on Monk’s technique, both of which tend to be overlooked in analyses of his music.


We also see Monk’s deep connection to family, another curveball from an icon of individualism.  He was “Uncle Bubba” to his nieces and nephews, and a committed parent to his own children.  For many years, he was home during the day, and in an era of more traditional gender roles, he changed the diapers and played with the kids while his wife was at work.  For being the kind of musician that your grandma would warn you against marrying, Monk had a stable marriage, and the love between Monk and his wife Nellie was unshakeable and lifelong.


Kelley lays to rest some of the most persistent myths about Monk.  In place of a musical “noble savage” whose art was intuitive and unschooled, we get several scenes of Monk deliberately honing his work in privately recorded rehearsals and in late-night jams with the giants of pre-bop piano.  Many musicians remember moments where Monk would explain what mattered in his music, acknowledging that he was anything but speechless about his art. Nearly every musician who played with him, from Dizzy Gillespie to John Coltrane to his son T.S. Monk, talks of their playing being transformed by what they learned.


To a man whom writers never tire of labeling eccentric, Kelley brings a healthy dose of common sense.  While commentators often read Monk’s lack of explicit civil rights activism as the mark of an apolitical artist, Kelley rightly understands that no thinking black man could be untouched by the emerging civil rights movement.  Monk played benefit concerts for CORE, SNCC, and the March on Washington.  Kelley even quotes Monk watching the March on TV: “I think I made a contribution to the movement without having to be there to march.” 


Kelley’s analysis involves displacements and substitutions of the conventional Monk story, a Monk-ish rendering that helps us hear new music in a familiar song.  Still, core mysteries remain: how do you stay committed to an unpopular artistic vision for 15 years?  Why not sell out, take a day job, anything to help support a growing family?  Then, once the tides of popular opinion turn in your favor, how do you stay true to the same vision for another 15 years despite people’s greater interest in the pedestal they’ve put you on than the music itself?


It’s Monk’s unflinching commitment to a new jazz that makes his story astonishing, and the rich context Kelley brings to it doesn’t explain Monk’s tenacity so much as underscore it.  Some silences are meant to be.  Without them, there is no music.  Monk played the silences as well as anyone, and it seems Kelley has learned something from the master.  Quoting Kelley quoting Monk: “You know what’s the loudest noise in the world, man?  The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

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