Thelonious Monk is one of the enigmatic figures of jazz: the more one admires his playing, his composition, and his recorded work, the more puzzling and elusive the man himself becomes. At a time when the popularity of jazz was at its height in mid-century America, he made its success a springboard into a form of personal expression few had ever imagined possible.
The mysterious nature of Monk's genius, it turns out, has its roots in a North Carolina boyhood and a family life that surprisingly seems very normal in many ways. Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original (Free Press, 2009) removes layers of myth-making and tale-spinning that seem to surround the monumental figure of the musician, whose life and aloof personality became a signpost for the difficult and cerebral form of jazz called bebop.
This was not a term the musicians themselves favored, but which became a convenient tag by which the public could identify the players. It was as though they were members on a team, rather than being seen as individuals; for this musical style of ensemble playing and stellar, one-of-a-kind solos, the idea must have seemed a supreme irony and one that Monk might have appreciated:
"He got a kick out of fooling people, particularly those whom he thought were too lazy or afraid to think for themselves. One of his favorite pranks was to stare intensely at a spot on the ceiling or in the sky, either in a crowded room or on a street corner. Invariably, several people would look up with him, searching for whatever elusive object apparently fascinated him. It was an experiment in mass psychology that brought him great amusement."
As Monk's life takes on the familiar contours of a young student, husband to Nellie, and a father to their two children "Toot" (Thelonious Jr.) and "BooBoo" (Barbara), there are the intriguing glimpses into life with Monk that seem in no way typical. Kelley delights in family stories that reveal the "almost carnivalesque" aspects of this very unique life with father. Monk's niece, Benetta, nicknamed Teeny, got told not to bang on the piano and later gets her sly revenge on Monk, the one-time Julliard student, as he tries to show off:
"Monk's piano was notorious for its clutter. It occupied a significant portion of the kitchen and extended into the front room. The lid remained closed, since it doubled as a temporary storage space for music, miscellaneous papers, magazines, folded laundry, dishes, and any number of stray kitchen items.
Teeny thumbed through the pages of the Chopin book, then turned to her uncle and asked, 'What are you doing with that on the piano? I thought you couldn't read music? You can read that?' The challenge was on. In response, Monk sat down at the piano, turned to a very difficult piece, and started playing it at breakneck speed.
'His hands were a blur,' she recalled decades later. 'Then after he was through, he jumped up from the piano and just started grinning. So then I said, 'You didn't play that right.'
'Whaaaa? What are you talking about? I played it ten times faster than anyone could!'
Teeny sassed back, 'It is supposed to be played adagio and you played it allegro.'"
In the hot-house environment of New York's jazz scene Monk was a stand-out, not only for his music but for his uninhibited performance. The music seemed cerebral, difficult and almost mathematical, yet Monk was sincerely interested in reaching an audience, even if it
turned out to be an audience of one. He performed popular tunes with the same force of personality as his original compositions. As his music gained exposure and his compositions deepened into their angular and singular forms, Monk's personal life becomes a retreat from the public and its very perception of him.
He himself seemed to create the myth, just as he professed to be disinterested in living up to an image -- and then, on February 28, 1964, he was featured in a Time cover story, and suddenly his was the face of jazz for a majority of Americans, who found the "new" jazz music mysterious and almost beyond comprehension; the Beatles had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, three weeks earlier.
Kelley's book is not a critical biography of Monk's music, but it is an intensely personal look at how life and art intersect. Nellie Monk is interviewed extensively, and shows her as a central character to her increasingly insular husband, lovingly keeping Thelonious away from distraction or being taken advantage of by managers and booking agents. In his later life, as Monk inexplicably gives up performance and composing altogether, Nellie seems a force of nature herself for having been a lifelong companion to the puzzling nature of Monk's genius.
"One of his favorite mantras was 'Always Know,' adding that the word 'Know' was Monk spelled backward with the 'W' inverted. He often illustrated the point with a huge custom-made ring that had 'MONK' emblazoned across the top in diamonds, turning it upside down in case you didn't get it. 'Always Know!" All Ways Know!'"
His compositions have titles describing the familiar ("BooBoo's Birthday," "'Round Midnight") and the oblique ("Epistrophy," "Rhythm-a-ning"). His music is always there for those with an ear to discover for themselves. Like his music, Monk's life is still a mystery that may not need explaining, although Kelley does a great service by demonstrating that the force of creativity itself may, ultimately, be beyond knowing.