In the intro to his biography of legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, Robin Kelley quotes one of the Maestro’s favorite quips about the phrase ‘always know’, that the ‘”know” is “Monk” spelled backwards with the “M” upside down’. That brain pretzel is a succinct commentary on Monk’s music. Taking the seemingly simple, turning inside out, tossing it upside down, and flipping it around is the hallmark of Monk’s approach to the Tin Pan Alley standards, such as “I’ve Got Rhythm”, that he helped morph into the musical revolution known as bebop. It also captures Monk’s method of playing the piano and composing originals. Written off by many in the early days as unschooled and inept, Monk has been proven over time to be one of the most innovative and sophisticated artists in the history of jazz.
Monk certainly merits top billing along with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Duke Ellington in influencing the evolution of jazz to mid-20th century. Kelley, who researched and wrote most of the book while living in New York and teaching at Columbia University, sets out to make that case and by and large succeeds. Kelley had unprecedented access to Monk’s personal archives, family, friends, and colleagues and also the freedom to go wherever the evidence took him. More than a decade in the making, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is exhaustive in its detail and exemplary of the biographical form. It’s also a damn fine piece of music appreciation and social history to boot. It’s a must read not only for Monk aficionados and jazz fans in general but for anyone interested in American popular culture in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Kelly’s effort sets the record straight on one of the arguably most misunderstood (and misunderestimated) figures in American music. Known for his curious onstage antics, sartorial distinction, and quirky, difficult compositions, Monk has been as much the victim as the beneficiary of the hagiography that has grown up around him. As with a lot of artists working in popular mediums, Monk’s creative genius was regularly undermined by the stupidity of corporate suits concerned first and foremost with the bottom line. Kelly cuts through the clutter to reveal that a lot of Monk’s supposed eccentricity was a function of his uncompromising standards for his music and for the conditions under which it was performed. It also turns out that Monk was likely what we now call bipolar, a condition that increasingly plagued him as he grew older and which coincided with his growing profile in the public eye.
It’s a measure of the man, musically speaking, that Monk was dug almost immediately by the likes of Duke Ellington but not Oscar Peterson. It marks the difference between knowing how to make music and simply being able to play it. And Kelly does his subject a solid by dispelling recent academic scholarship opining that Monk wasn’t really all that keen on Duke. Exactly the opposite was the case. Of all his musical forebears, Ellington was the one who walked on water in Monk’s eyes. His rendition of “I Didn’t Know About You” on the 1967 Columbia release Straight, No Chaser demonstrates the absolute tin ear of anyone, no matter how many college degrees, who would suggest there’s no mutual affinity between the two jazz giants.
One might ask if I’m so keen on this book, then why didn’t I submit it to the PM ‘best of’ list? The simple truth is I hadn’t read it at the time the call went out. But I have now. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.