Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk

The first book that I read this year is Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Given that music criticism is a mixed bag, it's hard not to appreciate a well-acclaimed historian taking on the biography of a  complex man so often portrayed as simple, naive, and childlike. Kelley's aim is to dispel precisely that story, first found in William Gottlieb's profile published in Down Beat in September 1947 and popularized through the efforts of Lorraine Lion's press release that accompanied his first record from Blue Note.

Kelley shows how Monk was repeatedly frustrated by this myth, which would re-emerge at difficult moments in his career, especially when he was looking for a consistent gig or seeking the re-establishment of his cabaret card. But Kelley goes beyond that, showing definitively that Monk was, in fact, a busy and worldly man, concerned about keeping family and friends afloat, and conscious of how the struggle of black jazz musicians was so often a microcosm of the larger civil rights struggle. While he's not as bombastic as Frank Kofsky (but he did write the Introduction to the latest edition of Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism), Kelley alerts us to the signposts of this struggle along the way, from local riots in Monk's neighborhood in Harlem to irruption of the mass movements fighting the Jim Crow south.

However, I'm sure you're wondering by now about Thelonious Sphere Monk himself. He was a busy guy; even with long stretches without a stable job, he managed to keep playing all the time. Other reviewers have complained  with some merit about the way Kelley details tour after tour, show after show, but there is a purpose to the prose: to show just how hard working Monk was-- because, of course, jazz is above all about the music. He never forgets, though, that Monk was also a family man, and eventually (and tragically) a man who was overcome by mental and physical ailments (which he discusses without romanticizing). Kelley  says that the book took fourteen years to write, and the effort paid off. Thelonious Monk is a definitive and illuminating look at a musician so often portrayed as a mystery.

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