Sunday, September 26, 2010

Enigma: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009)

After spending 14 years researching and writing Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (coming out in paperback in November 2010), Robin D. G. Kelley was probably surprised that the book received limited acclaim. As an academic whose written many books about the African-American experience (Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class), I believe Kelley wanted to get this story right by working hard at researching the details of Monk’s life from the time he was born until he died. But I think he would have been more successful if he approached the life of this groundbreaking jazz pianist through his art rather than as a subject for biographical study. Consequently, Kelley fails to generate enough critical ideas of his own other than what he learned from all of the facts, interviews and tapes that he accessed. Kelley’s impressions of Monk and his music become stifled in sluggish linguistics with only a few bright lights of analysis and opinion.

While Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz, most people today would be more familiar with the name Louis Armstrong than they would with the equally profound Thelonious Monk. Because without Monk, jazz wouldn’t have evolved from the swing sounds of the Big Band era into the post-war style of the so-called, be-bop generation. Monk was its originator even if the most famous be-bop musician, Charlie Parker, popularized the form. In his book, Kelley explains that this lack of recognition as the founder of the music plagued Monk for his entire life. It was only after Monk’s death in 1982 that he finally got his due and was given the accolades he so rightfully earned. Monk’s unique approach to the music still offers the listener a wide emotional range: from humour to pathos; an impressionistic musical canvass that continues today to reward our ears.

Author Robin D.G. Kelley
Kelley has written an exhaustive biography: 451 pages of text, 100 pages of footnotes, two short appendices and an index. His effort to chronicle Monk’s life with the utmost detail is second to none. I’ve not read a book this well researched in a long time. In fact, due to Kelley’s diligence on every aspect of Monk’s life, I was exhausted from reading it. The author worked very hard to do justice to the facts because he was privileged to hear archival recordings from universities and private collections. He sought and was granted access to birth records, legal records -- even income tax files. Kelley traced Monk’s life as a working musician from the Five Spot in New York to the Colonial Tavern in Toronto to the concert halls of Europe and Japan. He read every review and cited magazines, newspapers and third-party conversations. Kelley interviewed members of Monk’s extended family and he talked to as many musicians who played with him that he could possibly track down. He was also given access to private recordings of Monk in conversation with his devoted wife, Nellie. Monk’s life was anything but ordinary and Kelley’s due diligence regarding Monk’s debilitating mental health proves that in spite of his illness, Monk was able to compose and perform often to exhilarating success.

Monk suffered from bi-polar disorder with fits of manic depression. His condition, as Kelley points out, was misdiagnosed and often considered schizophrenia for which Monk was medicated but with terrible side effects. Kelley’s goal was to write a book that tried to understand who Monk really was: how he worked, played and socialized. “The truth about his life and music is fascinating and complicated and no less original or creative than the myth,” he writes. Clearly, Kelley was on a mission. But in an effort to dig deep and offer revealing stories about Monk, Kelley focuses too much on the minutia and not enough on the “big picture.”

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, which is written in chronological sequence, reads more like a diary than critical biography. While I was impressed by Kelley’s research and his ability to detail the story of Monk’s extended family (especially his relationship with his children, T.S. Monk, and daughter Barbara aka Boo Boo, his wife Nellie and his nieces and nephews) little is revealed about the man beyond the purely functional. He was a good parent, albeit inconsistent according to his son, but the author fails to develop any theories or ideas regarding Monk’s personal life and his creativity. I’ve always believed that there’s a connection between one’s life and one’s art. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but they aren’t separate from one another either. And this, unfortunately, is one of the missing aspects of Kelley’s articulation. He gives us the facts in great detail but offers little in discerning the meaning of those facts and how Monk’s compositions may or may not have reflected his life.

Just consider Monk’s song titles: “Epistrophy,” “Misterioso,” "Ugly Beauty," “Straight, No Chaser,” “Green Chimneys,” “Let’s Call This,” “Well You Needn’t,” these aren’t your normal, everyday song titles. They have a relationship with the composer and Kelley often falls short in describing or understanding how these songs came about in the first place. For instance, Kelley will state a fact about “Bemsha Swing” as being “originally copyrighted …[as] ‘Bimsha Swing,’ Bimsha (or Bim or Bimshire) being a nickname for Barbados,” but he fails to go deeper into Monk’s musical interpretation of it. Instead, Kelley implies the obvious; suggesting that Monk was inspired by the people in his New York neighbourhood who emigrated from the Caribbean.

Kelley is most successful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding Monk, such as his lateness for engagements due to his strange, mysterious behavior; that he wasn’t reliable as a working musician. In fact, he goes to great lengths to suggest that the stories were partly due to Monk and his own publicist creating a buzz about the man early in his career so that he could be recognized for his work. Unfortunately, Kelley repeats this idea in virtually every chapter. He also reports that Monk is misunderstood by the jazz press and under-recognized as a musical genius, an opinion that limited Monk’s success for over ten years of his life until 1960. But this misunderstanding, coupled with Monk’s often-erratic behavior in public, strengthened the legends about Monk that he carried with him until his retirement from music in 1976.

And while I admire Kelley for pointing this discrepancy out in trying to reveal the “truth” about Monk, he often gets bogged down in the details and repeats himself long after the point is made. This is when I grew exhausted by the read and wanted more extrapolation and analysis than just reportage. Kelley does come close to tying the story of Monk to his music when he writes on the 1969 recording of Monk’s Blues for Columbia records. Here, Kelley describes the struggle arranger Oliver Nelson, producer/composer Teo Macero and the record company had by insisting on “commercializing” Monk’s music during the advent of rock n roll. According to Kelley this album fails because “Nelson’s arrangements left much to be desired, but they were not as bad as Macero’s compositions.” He goes on to describe why they failed and how Monk as a musician was still misunderstood even by those who worked with him.

When I first heard of Thelonious Monk it was through his music. The tune was “Well, You Needn’t,” from the great 1957 album, Monk’s Music, and it featured the man sitting in a kid’s red wagon. To this day, I still get a charge out of it because of its off-handed humour, the element of surprise and the way it swings- all of the key ingredients to appreciating Monk and his special style of composition. I began to become curious as to the source of the music and its unique author. Within time, I began to understand how Monk’s music reflected, even in a superficial way, who he was as a man, artist and African-American. But Kelley spends barely a page on the “technical side” of Monk’s music. He lists all of Monk’s compositions, with some background facts, but he doesn’t include a comprehensive discography, instead deferring to a book by Chris Sheridan and a web site. Why are we left short-changed on the discography?

While I admire Robin Kelley’s dedicated effort to write a detailed biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original gets lost in the details. Thelonious Monk, one of America’s most enigmatic jazz artists, remains an enigma.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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