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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Robin D. G. Kelley

Simon and Schuster (JR Books)

ISBN-10: 0684831902

ISBN-13: 978-0684831909


Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious is the latinized spelling of Saint Tillo, a Benedictine monk renowned for his missionary work in France in the seventh century. Regarding Monk's middle name, Sphere, the nearest that Kelley comes to an explanation is that speer, a Monk family name, means 'to ask' in 'Scottish'. With such an appellation, Thelonious Sphere Monk could never be accused of being square. Monk's life was replete with unusual titles; an early girlfriend was called Trotyrine, for example.

Kelly, a professor of history, American Studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, points out what most of us already know when he says that for well over half a century the press and the critics have portrayed Monk as eccentric, mad, childlike, brooding, naïve, intuitive, primitive, even taciturn, despite such stereotypes being absurd. Monk had perfect pitch. Yet, contrary to the common lore that Monk 'excelled' at mathematics and physics, his school grades were never very impressive. However, he had a good knowledge of, and an appreciation for, Western classical music. He loved Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Bach, and took an interest in Igor Stravinsky.

Monk's parents had come from North Carolina to New York as part of the Southern Migrant scheme during the early to mid-1920s. He was eleven when he began taking piano lessons. Before that, he had learned to read by watching his sister carefully, over her shoulder. By the time he was thirteen it was clear that jazz was his first love. Monk grew up in Manhattan, on West 63rd St. What his piano teacher Simon Wolf couldn't teach, Monk assimilated from neighbours such as Benny Carter, pianist Freddy Johnson, Russell Procope and Bubber Miley.

In this thorough and readable account Kelly is strong on context. He reminds us of those details that many jazz historians ignore, including the pervasive Black resistance to the WWII draft, when many black musicians were reluctant to leave the music scene to fight another white man's war. By late 1943, when Monk was 26, African Americans comprised 35 percent of the nation's delinquent registrants. Monk was compliant, but his file was stamped 'psychiatric reject'. He was classified 4F. In that same year, 1943, race riots occurred in Harlem. In one day in August six people died, 700 were injured, and 550 were arrested.

But Monk's music is at the heart of the matter. In this respect, for completeness one could wish for notated musical examples and informed discussion. Little of this is offered, other than a three-paragraph appendix on chord voicings.  As Kelly's richly detailed and fascinating 600-page account is subtitled 'The Life and Times of an American Original', one is slightly disappointed rather than misled. Perhaps to express such a wish is unreasonable, for this is a valuable book.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, 2010. Reproduced here by kind permission.

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