Book Review: Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times..

We talk about a lot of music here on Audiogon, so I thought I’d try something a little different. I’m reading a book that I think most jazz fans would dig. I haven’t finished reading ‘Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original’, by Robin D.G. Kelley, but at about the half-way mark it is excellent so I thought I’d pass it along.

This is the second Monk biography I’ve read (the first being Straight, No Chaser by Leslie Gourse) and I’ll state hands down that this new book is better. It’s exceptional as a biography regardless of how many times the subject has been covered. The level of detail would make a Krell owner proud.

Descriptions of life in the apartment on West 63rd St really bring the family to life, as well as the visitors. A New York Times review from last weekend highlighted the unprecedented access the author had, not only to musicians and professional associates, but to Monk’s family, particularly Nellie Monk, whom he befriended and interviewed for years before her death in 2002 at the age of 80. Nellie in turn acted as a gate-keeper to other members of the family. Not just Monk’s kids, but his nieces and nephews – the people who were really in a position to know him in a context beyond the oft re-hashed tales of the eccentric “Mad Monk.”

Of course the stories related to music are extraordinary. In one passage, Billy Taylor, only eighteen or so at the time, relates a story of Monk inviting him – straight off the stage - to an after hours gathering where he was asked to play, not realizing that he was sitting around with Art Tatum and Willie “the Lion” Smith until they told him to move over so they could take turns. The scene is vivid, and you’ve got to feel for Taylor as he realizes he’s been playing for the gods.

It’s hard to imagine that Monk, now remembered as one of the greatest 20th century musicians, could have lived in such poverty so far into his career. Even after he’d recorded for Blue Note and Prestige for almost a decade, his non-existent sales and inability to keep his New York City cabaret card prevented him from earning anything resembling a steady living. Kelley does a great job of describing this life and takes pains to show that through lean years Monk remained true to his music, but he also humanizes the situation by detailing Nellie’s employment and the struggles of raising kids with no money. Monk is not portrayed as an isolated, withdrawn artist, but as a man with a family who was conscious of the fact that he was not earning a living and who desperately sought success, just on his own terms.

Of course Monks eccentricities, arrests and mental health are all discussed, but unlike other biographies the author does an excellent job of balancing these oddities against descriptions of Monk doing normal things like changing diapers and hanging out with his family, friends and neighbors. He certainly had his issues, but this portrait would lead you to believe that they were not as debilitating or isolating – at least early on – as other authors have suggested. Like I said, I’m only about half way through the book.

Of course the book is chock full of musicians, bands, clubs, dates and places, again all described in exceptional detail. I’m not feeling like its missing anything, but at the same time its well written and accessible. This is not an overly scholarly tome.

I’m not expecting the second half to take a dramatic turn for the worse, so on the basis of my partial read, if you dig Monk, and have an interest in the life and times of the man, his family AND a lot of the musicians he knew and worked with, buy this book. Highly recommended!
I just ordered this..... Thanks for the preview. It's good to have this type of post here on the 'Gone.

There is a very enthusiastic review in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review section:

I enjoy reading muscians' biographies because it always helps to understand and appreciate their music.

A couple other great jazz biographies are:

"Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhor" by David Hadju

"Miles Davis: The Autobiography" by Miles Davis & Quincy Troupe

Thanks for the great post.
Indeed, a most thoughtful and insightful thread. I grew up listening to Monk's music, thanks to my Dad who would on occasion play such tunes as, Brilliant Corners, Smokes gets in your Eyes, my Dad's favorite.......

I'll have to order it too.

Thank you.
I found myself listening to the records chronologically as they were discussing them in the book. It was fun to hear the progression, not only in the songs but also in the recording quality.