22 February 2010


Robin D.G. Kelley

Despite the rise of jazz studies, the history of jazz remains wound up with a great deal of mythology (not that its the fault of the jazz studies field; these processes take time to unwind). And within The Jazz Tradition, no figure is more heavily mythologized than Thelonious Monk (save for Buddy Bolden, and, perhaps, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane). As Robin Kelley points out in his new biography of Monk, this process of mythologizing began even before Monk became notable outside of a circle of jazz musicians. The image of Monk the disaffected was essentially invented by Bill Gottlieb, a writer and photographer for Down Beat assigned to write about Monk in 1947. Having heard Monk's name dropped in interviews with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Gottlieb envisioned Monk as "the George Washington of bebop," a Bolden-like figure who was pivotal to the bebop revolution.

His profile, which appeared in the September 24 (1947) issue of Down Beat, "set in motion the image of Monk as a mysterious, eccentric figure," asserts Kelley. It was an image against which Kelley tries to set the record straight. Unlike previous Monk biographers, Kelley had access to scores of private home recordings made by Monk and his wife Nellie, which present the image of Monk as a man of wide interests who was not indifferent to musical traditions, Western and otherwise, as the popular image of Monk asserts. Kelley paints a vivid portrait of Monk, the well-informed artist who struggled to make a living, but had the determination and self-assuredness to persist, knowing his music was both important and accessible.

Especially poignant are the scenes in which Monk struggles to deal with what was likely an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder, which led to stints at psychiatric wards and regimens of amphetamine-laced vitamin shots and Thorazine which made his condition worse, not to mention countless manic episodes. This is a warts-and-all treatment of Monk, who leaned on the women in his life (including his mother, his wife, and confidant the baroness Nica de Koenigswarter) to take care of him while he focused much of his energy on his music and other diversions.

However, this is not to say that Monk does not emerge from the book as a triumphant figure. Kelley does not dispute the importance of Monk in the history of jazz, though he does rightfully critique Monk's complaints during the height of bebop's popularity that he did not get enough credit for his role in the development of the music. In the end, though, Monk seems more like a tragic figure than a triumphant one. While some of his peers like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie thrived in the late-1950s and beyond, Monk frequently studied to make ends meet or even get gigs, on top of his psychological disorder.

If I may be slightly tendentious here, it is fitting that Kelley, a professional historian, wrote such a book as this. It takes the kind of person who thrives sifting through archives and staring at as few as three documents in one day to achieve this precision of the events covered in this book while also painting a coherent portrait of the man. With access to a treasure trove of personal recordings, which more than make up for the fact that Monk left no personal papers or journals to posterity, Kelley digs deep and sifts through the clutter to give us a story of a musician whose work remains a vital toucstone to jazz in the 21st century.

Willis Conover introduces Monk at Newport in 1958, clearly referencing the image of Monk the eccentric.

Bonus Material: Bop and Beyond interviews Kelley and has a few more words from the author.
Extra credit: Gabriel Solis' Monk's Music pairs quite nicely with Kelley's biography.

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