DOUG QUACKENBUSH/COURTESY OLGA QUACKENBUSH
"You know people have tried to put me off as being crazy," said Thelonious Sphere Monk. "Sometimes it's to your advantage for people to think you're crazy." He ought to have known. Monk was one of only a few jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine (others include Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis) and was celebrated as a genius by everyone who mattered. Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins could not have imagined (or transmuted) the language of jazz without him. Yet the pianist was also constantly underpaid and underappreciated, rejected as too weird on his way up and dismissed as old hat once he made his improbable climb. Performer and composer, eccentric and original, Monk was shrouded in mystery throughout his life. Not an especially loquacious artist (at least with journalists), he left most of his expression in his inimitable work, as stunning and unique as anyone's in jazz--second only to Duke Ellington's and perched alongside Charles Mingus's.
He did leave a paper trail, though, and Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive, necessary and, as of now, definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original offers a Baedeker of sorts. Jazz may be filled with fascinating characters, but it has inspired relatively few exemplary full-length biographies. (Among the exceptions are David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; John Chilton's Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz; Linda Kuehl's unfinished With Billie, assembled by Julia Blackburn after Kuehl's death; and John Szwed's So What: The Life of Miles Davis.) Kelley is, in many ways, a rarity. While many music journalists write amateur history, Kelley is an eminent historian at the University of Southern California. Rarer still, though his earlier books (including Race Rebels and Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!) examine race from a neo-Marxist perspective, his thinking took an apparent turn during the fourteen years he spent on the Monk project. While discussions of race and racism are recurrent--how could they not be in a biography of a mentally ill black genius in the middle of the twentieth century?--Kelley shows admirable restraint by never addressing politics beyond their appropriate role or treating Monk's life as a political fable. Monk, a black man from humble origins, succeeded at becoming a bourgeois artist with a wealthy, devoted patron, and he is never criticized for it. Unlike Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and many others, Monk did not enlist in the struggles for freedom or power. Music and daily life proved to be difficult enough.
Kelley has created a lush portrait of the private, off-camera Monk, one it would have been difficult to paint without the unprecedented access he had to the Monk family, including Nellie, Monk's widow, who provided substantial information before her death in 2002, and their son, Toot (otherwise known as TS), who opened up the archives once trust had been established. Kelley shows us the man who, when he wasn't getting work in the early 1950s, played Mr. Mom. He shows us the musician who, when he wasn't at home, needed some sort of neighborhood watch to make sure he didn't drift in the wrong direction. It took a village. He had a family who tolerated his eccentricities and never pressured him to take a day job. Mingus had to work at the post office when freelance work was hard to come by; no matter how lean things got, Monk was able to work at the eighty-eight keys in his living room.
Born in North Carolina in 1917 and raised in the predominantly African-American San Juan Hill neighborhood on what is now Manhattan's Upper West Side, Monk went from obscurity to notoriety to seclusion--from glorious, hard-fought music to inscrutable silence. At times he boomeranged from Bellevue to the Village Vanguard to Rikers Island to the 30th Street Studios of Columbia Records and back again. But one thing was for sure: in a certain scene, among a certain set, in boho corners of the 1950s, crazy was that year's model. "Crazy, man!" was the rallying cry of the Beats, parodied by Norman Mailer, who nevertheless believed, as a Bellevue alum himself, the hype about hip. Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath did stints in McLean Hospital; Allen Ginsberg, who saw the best minds of his generation starving, hysterical, naked, possessed a Bellevue pedigree; and John Berryman proclaimed himself a demented priest. Sanity was supposedly for squares.
Yet for all its colloquial power, crazy (or even "Crazy, man!") is not in the DSM-IV. We have not a shopworn adjective but a clinical diagnosis for what ailed Monk. He suffered, as Kelley explains, from bipolar disorder, although his illness was misdiagnosed and mistreated throughout the latter part of his career. Like other black jazz musicians (Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus), Monk was more likely to be called schizophrenic, or just plain nuts, than were blue bloods like Cal Lowell. Monk took "vitamin shots" from a "Doctor Feelgood" who dosed his patients with amphetamines. Kelley ventures that Monk, who alluded to his enigmatic psyche in songs like "Nutty" and "Misterioso," eventually stopped playing entirely a few years after he began taking lithium in 1972; after his final concert at Carnegie Hall (and an impromptu Fourth of July performance at Bradley's) in 1976, he hardly played or spoke until his death in 1982.
In his performing heyday--from the late 1940s to the early '70s--Monk could be brilliant and antisocial at the same time, reinventing jazz composition while wearing dark glasses indoors. During bass or tenor solos, he would either leave the stage altogether or dance with himself. He favored a kind of arrhythmic twirl, which he would usually complement with a counterintuitive hat; he seemed like someone giving himself the spins. Occasionally he would add a knee kick, which would make the gyrations seem intentional, or at least syncopated. Often he would just seem like the man who wasn't there, a real gone guy. But once the bass solo was over, he'd return in a rush to the piano, often with a cigarette in his mouth, and, in his most inspired moments, create a cascade of sounds so ornate and gorgeous that it was described, by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, as a "vinegary, dissonant, gothic" tone.
That description has aged better than most; Balliett was the most metaphorical of American jazz critics. For most Monk watchers, though, the man--crazy, gifted and black--was, above all, a metaphor. Forget about his detractors. Kelley shows with damning precision that some of Monk's most fervid advocates went down the most benighted of infantilizing or primitivist paths. Lewis Lapham, in a sympathetic 1964 profile in the Saturday Evening Post, wrote that as an "emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child's vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, laughs, walks or dances as the spirit moves him." Monk may have seemed that way to strangers, especially when he posed sitting in a child's red wagon for an album cover photo, but to truly do Monk justice one must, as Kelley has done, reconcile his eccentricities with an appreciation of the deep, original thinking present in the music. Besides, testimony from Monk's family, at least in his less gone years, presents a different portrait of an affectionate father and husband--when he wasn't disappearing on drug runs. And while he often spoke to interviewers in laconic grunts, musicians say he sometimes talked shop with them for hours. He was complicated, flawed and progressively ill--a more nuanced figure than the flimsy characterization of the way-out jazz cat could possibly convey.
There is a much-quoted line in Charlotte Zwerin's 1988 documentary Straight, No Chaser in which Monk is told that he is in an encyclopedia alongside popes and presidents, and is therefore famous. As he absorbs this information he is patently aware that he is being filmed. His response? "I'm famous. Ain't that a bitch?"
It was indeed often a bitch to be Thelonious Monk. Because of a law that was eventually struck down by New York City Mayor John Lindsay in 1967, Monk repeatedly lost his "cabaret card." The card was a prized possession because it permitted musicians to play in establishments serving alcohol, and any cardholder who was arrested had to forfeit the golden ticket. Monk lost his repeatedly, once when he was arrested while sitting in a car with his dear friend Bud Powell, who was, according to Kelley, the one carrying heroin, but each was too loyal to the other to snitch; and once because he had the temerity, as a Negro in Jim Crow America, to demand service at a hotel in Delaware. (Monk took many police beatings for that one.) This was no way to treat a genius; it was no way to treat a human being.
Monk also felt undervalued and, of course, underpaid. The standard biography, the one the narrator delivers at the beginning of Straight, No Chaser, is that Monk attended Juilliard and helped invent bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The truth, as elucidated by Kelley, is messier. Monk never attended Juilliard; he attended New York's illustrious Stuyvesant High School but never graduated. He was not holding the piano chair at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem when bebop was being hatched, and he later fought a losing battle with Gillespie for bop ownership rights. Bop, contrary to Straight, No Chaser and Ken Burns's Jazz, was not one big happy family. Monk was the house pianist at Minton's in 1941, a few years before Parker and Gillespie created a musical revolution, and his legendary band there included the barometrically influential guitarist Charlie Christian and the drummer Kenny "Klook" Clarke. When Monk wasn't in the process of sculpting his own sound (and vital harmonic breakthroughs for bebop), he was sometimes falling asleep at the bandstand or gone altogether.
Yet even after he was let go by Minton's, at the end of 1941, he was always welcome to return, and Powell or whoever else was occupying the bench would step aside. (Powell was a former acolyte of Monk's, equally brilliant, equally original and equally mentally ill, yet another Bellevue grad.) Minton's jam sessions became dominated by marquee names like Gillespie and Parker. Even though Monk would sometimes sit in with the band, and even though they would routinely trade choruses on gestating Monk classics like "'Round Midnight," his contributions to the festivities often went uncredited. Gillespie, a consummate showman and trickster, was cannily making a name for himself. Monk had no gig, no label, nothing sacred but the integrity of his mind. After Lorraine Lion (now Gordon) dubbed him the High Priest of Bebop to publicize his 1947 debut, Genius of Modern Music, the tag would be flung back at him with withering irony by those who were not yet convinced. And when Monk played in Gillespie's band in 1946, he missed rehearsals, showed up late for gigs and eventually was fired. Monk and Gillespie would reunite on the 1971-2 Giants of Jazz tour, and by then everything seemed copacetic; the revolution was a matter of history, and it was paying decent dividends to the two titans by then.