This epic tome—456 pages plus over 100 pages of footnotes—was given to me by my friend Shawna for my birthday and it took me nearly a month to read, so it's thrown me off my reading schedule, but it was completely worth it.
Thelonious Monk was, of course, one of the greatest jazz composers and performers ever, right up there with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and anybody else you can think of. It took quite a while for his decidedly different music to catch on, but in the end he was roundly applauded as one of the greats.
His life was not easy. He was bipolar, and did not receive appropriate medical care until very late in his life, when the disorder had already caused him and those he loved a lot of grief. Drugs, alcohol, poverty, and racism made life really hard for Monk and many of the jazz musicians who are now universally lauded as geniuses. A lot of his friends, collaborators & peers died young. Monk probably wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for some very supportive women in his life, namely his wife Nellie, his mother, and the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a fascinating character in her own right.
Robin D. G. Kelley goes to great lengths to demolish the myth of Monk as man-child, innocent, naive mystic. He is very successful in placing Monk in his time, among his family, and as part of a community. He wasn't a primitive. He could play Rachmaninoff.
Still, the legend that Monk had his head in the clouds was not entirely unfounded. He was perennially late, could be very difficult and uncommunicative, and did smash a few windows. But he also loved his family and was an extremely loyal and supportive friend who mentored countless musicians with unending concern and patience. I like it when Kelley admits that we can't know what was in Monk's mind at a particular moment. He was a complex man, as you might expect from such a genius.
It's a hell of a ride from Monk's early days of poverty and obscurity, to his reign as the High Priest of Bop. And then jazz audiences began to fade away and there was little market share for adventurous composers anymore. To me it's amazing that guys like Monk and Mingus and even Ellington were able to keep going as long as they were, given that most people prefer easily digestible pop music.
There are dozens of unforgettable characters, especially if you're a jazz fan like me, an awful lot of tormented geniuses like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, who were a lot worse off in the mental health department than Monk. There are others, though, like my drum heroes Max Roach and Art Blakey, who were level-headed, sober, and industrious. It's a lie that musical geniuses must lead chaotic, tormented lives. Monk probably would have been more productive and more long-lived had he not had bipolar disorder.
I will admit that I cried at the end of the book, when Monk quit playing music and became a recluse at the Baroness's home, laying on his bed in suit and tie, staring at the ceiling or watching The Price is Right. But of course he had every right to retreat into privacy and we have no right to complain; he gave us so much.
Kelley is a musician and his observations and occasional musical analysis deepened my understanding of and appreciation for Monk's music. As I was reading, I often looked things up on YouTube and I downloaded a couple of different albums I didn't have. It was really cool to listen while I was reading about the stories of the albums being made.
So yeah, very highly recommended for all jazz lovers and especially Monk fans.