Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Already considered to be one of America’s jazz giants, Thelonious Monk settled in front of his piano at the Royal Festival Hall in 1961 amidst much expectation. But the concert, his first in England, proved a disappointment. Monk kept interrupting his set with a series of antics that included ­dancing, lighting up a cigarette and pretending to fall off his piano bench.

The historian and occasional jazz critic Eric Hobsbawm remarked in the New Statesman afterwards that many people dismissed him as a “clumsy bore” and walked out. A few days later, he was openly booed at Manchester for suddenly disappearing from the stage and leaving his drummer to play a lengthy solo. Yet the ‘high priest of bebop’ was to end his three-month European tour as he had begun it, thrilling audiences with his technical mastery and astonishing improvisation.

Such erratic behaviour would be a running theme throughout Monk’s career, earning him a reputation for being at best eccentric and at worst weird. In this meticulously researched biography, Robin DG Kelley states that Monk in fact suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition aggravated by intermittent alcohol and drug misuse, probably a form of self-medication. As he got older, his mental health deteriorated, and he died in 1982 a virtual recluse aged 64.

Since the 1950s he had been hailed as one of the jazz world’s most original composers, producing complex rhythms and dissonant chords that even the likes of Miles Davis’ found hard to get his head around. Tunes like Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser and Well, You Needn’t soon became jazz standards and today Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, even though he only wrote 70 songs and Ellington more than a thousand.

Kelley, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California, spent 14 years researching his subject and the resulting 460-page labour of love is dense with detail, as much a history of post-war American jazz as the story of one of its principle figures.

Named after a 7th century Catholic saint from France who had once been kidnapped and enslaved, Thelonious Monk was brought up in New York after his family migrated north to escape the poverty of the Deep South. After displaying a keen musical ear, his single mother arranged piano lessons for him at the age of 11. His first teacher, Austrian émigré Simon Wolf, remarked, “This boy – no father – his mother scrubs floors to pay for music lessons and look at the progress he is making.”

At 17, having been passed over for a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, Monk went on the road accompanying a female evangelist; at 22, back in New York, he was leading his own quartet to become one of the founders of bebop.

Early on his career, critics tended to dismiss his music as too avant-garde and cerebral, but according to Kelley, Monk’s “sonic disturbance” was impossible to ignore and he came to be held in such high esteem that he made it on to the cover of Time magazine in 1964. “Monk was essentially a rebel… He broke rules and created a body of work and sound no one has been able to duplicate,” he writes.

But much to his dismay, unlike contemporaries such as Dizzy Gillisepie and Charlie Parker, he was never a great commercial success due to his idiosyncratic personality and limited performance repertoire.  Often short of money, he had to rely on the support of Pannonica de Koenigswarter ­ – ­ ‘Nica’ ­ –  the Bentley driving Rothschild heiress with a clipped British accent who was also Parker’s benefactor.

It was on the second floor of her New Jersey home that Monk exiled himself from his music and from his beloved wife Nellie for the last seven years of his life, dressing up each morning in his finest threads to lie on the bed and watch daytime TV.  But as he was preparing to meet his maker, his music was beginning to experience a renaissance with musicians and record labels falling over themselves to honour him once and for all.

Verdict: Exhausting detail but jazz enthusiasts will love it

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Robin DG Kelley

JR Books, London

December 16 2010

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