A comprehensive chronicle of the jazz legend’s life.
The name Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) has long been surrounded by a kind of tragic mystique. Few question his unparalleled talent, but the taint of mental illness has cast him as a bit of an outsider. With this encyclopedic portrait, Kelley (History and American Studies and Ethnicity/Univ. of Southern California; Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 2002, etc.) attempts to correct the many misconceptions, both personal and musical, that haunted Monk throughout his life and attended his image in the press. To combat the charge that Monk had no formal training and no knowledge of classical music, the author offers numerous examples from his childhood and teen years, when he rattled off Rachmaninoff at top speed. Kelley’s anecdotes show a humorous, generous and outspoken man who was beloved by family and friends—almost the opposite of the brooding, quizzical persona with which he greeted the press. From his formative years in the fertile soil of 1930s Harlem, Monk was a New Yorker through and through. He struggled to rise from penury and play his music for audiences that didn’t really understand his “weird” chord progressions and unique rhythms. Eventually he achieved the recognition he deserved, though his rise to success was long and difficult. At the height of his career, mental illness plagued him everywhere but at the piano. Written with the full cooperation of Monk’s wife, there can be little doubt that Kelley gets the facts straight. He includes plenty of firsthand accounts from those who knew the musician best, and his actions are meticulously recorded. However, few of Monk’s own words make it onto the pages, and the author does not attempt to devise overarching themes from his experiences. Ultimately the subject remains elusive. The degree of detail in this straight-ahead biography makes it unsuitable for the casual fan, but jazz aficionados will cherish it.
Dense and definitive—best appreciated with a record player handy.