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.