In Michael Ondaatje's wonderful novel “Divisadero” — a most memorable part of which is set in Sonoma County — the jazz of Thelonious Monk is likened to “imprisoned birdsongs.” Leave it to a superb novelist to distill the indescribable, but many others have felt likewise.
One of his few pianistic peers, Bill Evans, found Monk's spare, angular playing “unique and astoundingly pure.” Leading jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote in 1959 that Monk's music “represents possibly the most intense and single-minded exploration of the possibilities of jazz yet made by one man.”
So who was this man, who belongs in the jazz pantheon with the likes of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Coltrane, Mingus and few others, and why was he both so revered and controversial in his time?
Given Monk's lasting musical stature, it's surprising the authoritative and authorized biography has taken so long to arrive, but Robin D.G. Kelley has delivered it. Kelley, a respected historian at the University of Southern California, begins with some admirable genealogical work, tracing Monk's ancestry back generations, through slavery and pseudo-freedom in the South. Born in North Carolina in 1917, Thelonious Monk became a New Yorker at age 4 when his struggling family joined the Great Migration of black people from the South into what they hoped would be more hospitable cities. Settling into a West 64th Street apartment that would stay his lifelong home, he still found that “we had to fight to make it so we could walk the streets” to school in the racially charged neighborhood.
But home was also musically charged. He began piano lessons at age 11, and while still a teen took off on a two-year tour backing evangelical preachers. Before long he landed a job with Coleman Hawkins, one of the leading tenor sax players in jazz. From there he went on to record with other legends such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, lead his own groups all over the world, headline major festivals and play Carnegie Hall, and found himself on the cover of Time magazine. Some of his signature compositions, such as ” 'Round Midnight” and “Epistrophy,” became standards. Miles Davis said, “He's the one who really showed me everything,” and Jack Kerouac called him “the saint of bop.”
But through it all Monk was a mysterious and eccentric personality who, after his triumphs of the 1950s and 1960s, largely retired from public view until his death in 1982 and who then was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer for his jazz legacy, as both composer and performer.
That's Monk's trajectory in a vastly abbreviated nutshell. Kelley has spent 15 years exploring and documenting Monk's life story and also demolishing the “myth” of his largely media-created public persona. It's a story of lifelong struggle not only with racism, legal and financial barriers and being musically misunderstood but also with mental illness that repeatedly landed him in institutions such as Bellevue hospital and as an “inmate” at the State Hospital for the Colored Insane, “notorious for murders, suicides, and frequent escape attempts.”
Later he was hospitalized for two months at Langley-Porter in San Francisco, where, ironically, a psychiatrist who was also a musician was somewhat in awe of him. Even though renowned in the jazz world, Monk would be busted and jailed for a small amount of cannabis, beaten for his unorthodox appearance and behavior, exploited by record labels and even banned from paying gigs for habitual tardiness and other transgressions.
Monk apparently had a progressive mental disorder, which has been belatedly diagnosed as a bipolar condition or schizophrenia. Kelley strives mightily to disabuse any romantic notions that this tragic condition made him some sort of mystic or contributed much, if anything, to his singular music. In any event, we'll never really know what he might have sounded like if fully “normal.”
Even when at his best, Monk divided critics and fellow musicians. He feuded with his peers, from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis, whom he felt had sold out by going electric in the late 1960s. Yet he also yearned for more popularity and money. Dependent most of his life on his devoted wife and muse, Nellie, who took care of practically every aspect of his life short of writing and playing his music, he became both a tragic and triumphant figure. Kelley concludes that “for all the efforts to canonize Monk and place his bust on the mantel beside Bach and Beethoven, we must remember that Monk was essentially a rebel.”
This exhaustively researched work will undoubtedly now remain the definitive work on Monk, a rebel with a cause. Listen to virtually any of the recordings he left, and it should become beautifully clear what that cause was: timeless jazz.
(Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Robin D. G. Kelley. Simon and Schuster; 588 pages; $30.)