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Thelonious Monk: a life rediscovered

on October 30, 2009

The mustard-colored walls of Eastside Arts Alliance, a community gathering spot and performance space on International near 23rd Avenue, glowed invitingly through its large windows and into the dark night. The sound of piano music—chiming chromatic notes and clashing minor chords—drifted toward the street as buses rushed past and high school-aged youth walked by in twos and threes.

A crowd of about forty people listened as Muziki Roberson, an African-American man with a salt-and-pepper beard and black turtleneck played controlled, restless scales with his right hand while his left hand drummed out echoing, moody tones. His right foot, encased in a shiny leather boot, pumped the pedal of the white baby grand piano; his body jerked and his head shook while his hands—fingers alternately splayed and curled—leapt, swooped, and pounced on the keyboard with confidence.

Roberson played in homage of Thelonious Monk, the New York jazz pianist whose life spanned much of the 20th century. Following Roberson’s performance, the author of a new biography about Monk would speak about his investigation into whether the groundbreaking musician was really as antisocial as legend has it.

Monk was born in 1917 and passed away in 1982, but until recently not much was known about the private life and influences of the composer whose contributions to the field of “modern music,” as he called his genre, or bebop, were undeniable, according to music historians and jazz lovers. He collaborated with greats like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Monk was known for his dark sunglasses, strange hats and suits, and for unexpectedly abandoning his piano and dancing in the middle of performances.

But despite those eccentricities, Monk was regarded by the press and public as taciturn and reclusive. Almost nothing was known about his personal life. Some even contended that Monk’s unique style—characterized by discordant harmonies and unconventional pauses—was mostly the result of his bipolar disorder.

That “mythology” can now be dispelled, says his biographer, historian and University of Southern California professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Robin D.G. Kelley. Kelley spoke about the process of writing his newest book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, and read passages from it.  According to Kelley, “this was a man who was very community-oriented, very family oriented,” who contributed to and benefited enormously from the camaraderie and collaboration of local jazz artists.

Wearing a flowered denim shirt, blue jeans and small hoop earrings, Kelley, who is in his mid-fifties, exuded energy and intelligence as he spoke. Kelley spent fourteen years writing Monk’s biography. His previous books include Hammer and Hoe, Race Rebels, and Freedom Dreams, which examine African-American history, race and class in the US.


“This was—more than anything else—my life’s work,” Kelley told the audience, his eyes bright.  As a young piano player decades ago, Kelley recalled, he tried to teach himself to play Monk’s music. “My question always was: ‘How did he get that sound? Where did he come from?’ How did he figure out that whole tone harmony produces a floating feeling?”

It wasn’t easy getting the real story, Kelley said. Monk had no papers, Kelley said, and the lack of available facts in hard copy, as well as the Monk family’s tendency toward privacy, created a sort of echo chamber that reinforced the “mystery” and “mythology” that circulated about the man.

“Jazz writers end up writing books based on what other jazz writers write,” Kelly told the audience, laughing. “It’s kind of a cannibalism. I’m not a jazz critic, nor will I ever be one. I’m interested, as a historian, in telling the truth about this music and putting it in context.”

Kelly said his “gold mine” was being able to talk to Monk’s family. It took five long years to get their cooperation, Kelley said. “They were rightfully protective,” he added.

What Kelley discovered was Monk’s strong family and community ties, which had been omitted in the earlier accounts portraying him as an antisocial artist. Monk was a man who was devoted to his neighborhood, barely ever leaving “the west 60s” of Manhattan and tirelessly playing benefit concerts for local groups that served his community. He was incredibly close with his family and wife, Kelley said.

“I discovered he was so much more than a musician or composer,” Kelley said. “He was a father who raised two kids. He was a house dad for a period of time. He married this amazing woman named Nellie Smith.”

Kelley contends that Monk spent much of his life in poverty because the record companies and nightclubs ripped him off. “Who paid for the piano tuner? Who paid for the stagehands? Monk did. They took it out of his advances.” He smiled and paused. “One of the things I do in this book is I follow the money,” Kelley said to amused titters from the audience. “You’ll see how little money he made over the years.”

Kelley, who teaches ethnic studies, also examines Monk’s life and work through the lenses of economics, race and culture.  He described in vivid detail the Harlem community center run by West Indian immigrants where Monk, as a youth, took music classes from an Austrian Jewish woman. Calypso and ragtime favorites from a multiethnic black community mingled in the alleyways of the tenement brick buildings nearby the neighborhood where Monk grew up. Later, Kelley said, Monk learned how to “make music to move people” when he accompanied a traveling woman evangelist for two years. “You can’t understand Monk without understanding that community,” Kelley said insistently.

To Kelley, the story of Monk was also the story of being a black man in an institutionally racist society. Monk, Kelley said, “like so many jazz artists, had experience of incarceration.” He had been beaten by the police. Twice he was institutionalized in mental health facilities. Kelley scoffed as he recounted a debate he had with someone who tried to compare Monk to the 19th century classical composer, George Frederic Handel. “He had very little income. The man was taking $12 gigs playing cocktail bars in the 1940s,” Kelley said, shaking his head. “He didn’t have the luxury to ‘lock himself up in a room to write’ and smoke opium. Monk gets caught in 1948 with reefer and goes to jail. What did bipolar mean for him? Those episodes meant he was institutionalized. The conditions of his life were just not comparable—precisely because he was black. Imagine what life could have been if he had good medical treatment,” he said, to wry laughter from the audience.

But the central question Kelley came back to throughout the night was: “How did Monk achieve his sound?” Kelley’s reply might surprise those who think of jazz music as loose, unstructured improvisation. “Hard work. Practice and discipline,” Kelley said solemnly. “It was easier for Monk to play ‘straight’ than for Monk to play ‘Monk.’”

To illustrate his point, Kelley played several minutes of an unreleased recording of Monk practicing that his wife had recorded in 1971, “near the end of his career when people didn’t think he had his chops,” said Kelley. “The tapes demonstrate that Monk’s sound took discipline,” Kelley said, shuffling through an iPod that stored the music as an mp3 file.

The recording had a fuzzy cassette tape sound with the tenor notes unusually shrill, but the music was unmistakable. It sounded like Monk, only slower. Notes would not quite stumble, but sway, like an accident barely averted. One could almost imagine Monk’s face furrowed in thought as his fingers, never resting, sought endlessly across black and white keys for the right sound.

“He wrestles with each measure. Every note is carefully placed,” Kelley said, swaying to the tunes. “You can hear the increasingly dissonant harmonies. He plays nonstop for long stretches.”

An excerpt from the same practice session, recorded twenty-five minutes later, sounded fuller and more confident. Chords crashed effortlessly into each other, and the jarring starts and stops seemed more planned. “Here he begins to integrate stride piano and improvises for the first time,” Kelley pointed out. He fast-forwarded to one week later: the same song sounded more measured, each stutter and stop executed with precision.

Kelley slowly turned the volume down. “He played that song over and over again. His music was deliberate.”

The recordings of the practice sessions also offer an unexpectedly intimate look into Monk’s personal life. Kelley described listening to one recording where a song fades out, and then a soft voice, Monk’s, asks his wife: “Were you recording that?” Between the songs, Kelley said with a smile, is a “lifetime love affair, captured” between Monk and his wife.

According to Kelley, Monk very consciously—and with permission—borrowed and exaggerated elements from the older generation of musicians around him, such as Willie “The Lion” Smith, who played Harlem clubs and went on to influence Duke Ellington. “Willie the Lion told him, ‘Do your thing. Don’t play like me,’” Kelley said, and went on to detail the mentorship role that Monk had assumed with John Coltrane, who used to come over to Monk’s house every morning and wait for him to wake up and play music together.

Kelley argued passionately against the “idiot savant” characterization of Monk’s talent. “This music is not learned by osmosis, it’s not in the bones, it’s not in the blood, it’s not genetic…it is work!  It just pisses me off that when it comes to this music or other kinds of black traditions, there’s always some sort of explanation that is sort of surreal or above reality—an explanation that has to do with genes, or soul, or in the body,” he said.

“That’s not to say that spirit doesn’t matter,” he continued, “but to be able to achieve that mastery requires work.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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