The relationships among jazz great Thelonious Monk; his wife, Nellie; and his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter are imagined in Milazzo’s debut novel.
Jazz is known as a musical form without form—improvisation and imagination replace structure and tradition. This novel mimics that concept, using various devices to imagine the relationships among Monk and those closest to him, including de Koenigswarter, who took him in during the last years of his life. In 1976, as his health deteriorated, the pianist came to Weehawken, New Jersey, to live with de Koenigswarter. The novel, like Monk’s work, is unconventional. It doesn’t contain chapters in the traditional sense but rather sections with titles like “Take #32” and “Rolls 1-6 (Negs. 500 – 563; 565 – 569; 572),” which lead into one another like the grooves of a vinyl album. Likewise, the book itself doesn’t include a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it comprises diary entries, bits of conversation, telephone calls, handbills, and other scraps that either pick up a previous subject or introduce a new one. During his final years, Monk didn’t play the piano nor did he speak much. Similarly here, while he is clearly the sun around whom the others in the group orbit, he is rarely an active presence in his own story. When he does try to play the piano, the author makes clear—via striking, lush writing—that Monk is a diminished star on the verge of burnout: “The moan this Monk makes as he assays the notes again, a low attenuated fuss suggesting pain, arrests no one.” However, there are plenty of other stories to follow, such as Nellie’s ruminations on their life together and the baroness’s observations. Milazzo isn’t attempting historical accuracy so much as imagining a misunderstood life. Like jazz, the book isn’t for everyone, and it requires effort and time to digest and understand. However, also like jazz, the effort brings rewards.
A challenging, unconventional, rewarding imagining of a jazz giant’s final years.