The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk

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Free Press

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley is the first biography to put the idiosyncratic music and eccentric behavior of this jazz legend into factual context. With unprecedented access to Monk's family and records, Kelley dispels many of the myths around the eccentric pianist and the psychiatric, legal, and professional challenges he faced before he died in 1982. Through it all, he renders Monk's world in rich detail, from hardscrabble North Carolina roots to the demanding and uncertain life of the working jazz musician. Kelley, on sabbatical from the University of Southern California, spoke to me from Oxford University, where he is the Harmsworth Professor of American History.


You write about Thelonious Monk getting up from the piano and dancing around in circles on stage, falling asleep at the keyboard, sporting strange hats, staring off into space and wandering out of nightclubs during gigs. On eccentricity alone, I can see why he'd be a good subject for a book. But what were you really after?

For me, Monk had been an obsession—aesthetically and culturally—pretty much from the moment I was introduced to his music as a teenage wannabe jazz piano player. But when the subject of Thelonious Monk comes up, the eccentricities are what people talk about first, as you just did. Descriptions of his music become conflated with descriptions of his behavior, onstage and off. I wanted to disentangle those things, understand who Thelonious Monk was as a human being, and who he was as an artist.

What did you find when you teased them apart?

I won't lie to you—when I went into this project, I didn't know I would find what I ended up finding. I was surprised by the depth of Monk's musical education. I was surprised by the way he suffered, financially, as an artist—even after he became the one of the most recognizable faces in jazz and was on the cover of national magazines, he just wasn't making much money. I was surprised by his deep commitment to his family and his community. It was the mundane things that I found most fascinating, not the outlandish, eccentric character we usually associate with Monk. As a consequence, I ended up writing a very different book than what I thought I would write.


This was one of the most assiduously researched biographies I have ever read. I have a feeling that if I asked you, "What did Monk have for lunch on August 12, 1958," you could have told me—

[laughs] Almost...

Did you think that you'd get as deeply immersed in Monk's world as you did? It took you 14 years to write this book.

Well, of those 14 years, a good six was spent trying to convince the Monk family to give me access to them. Once Thelonious Monk, Jr. let me in, though, I suddenly had unprecedented access—not just papers, but family members who had never talked to anyone before. Nellie, Monk's wife, had never granted interviews until I came along.

Once that happened, I wanted to approach this project as a historian—meaning the more you find out, the more you have to look up. Too many biographies of jazz musicians are written by critics using liner notes from albums and articles and interviews in the jazz press, and then filling in the rest with their own commentary.

To tell Monk's story and the story of the people who shaped his world, I was uncovering some of the most obscure individuals, people in the jazz world we know nothing about now. And what I found was that so much of what we think we know about Monk's life is just wrong. It was so hard to figure out the most basic things—in fact, I'm still finding mistakes in the book that I'm correcting for the paperback.

So what else has jazz history had wrong? In what other ways did you find the real Monk different from the image we have of him?

With jazz musicians, issues and assumptions about of drug use always come up—particularly in Monk's case because he was...odd. So odd, in fact, that the question of mental illness always looms large when we think of him. But with access to medical records and to his family, I got a sense of a man who suffered more from prescription drugs and bad diagnosis than he did from illicit drugs and bipolar disorder. He received very bad medical treatment, bad advice and bad prescriptions for a very long time. The impact that had on his ability to function shocked me.

I was also struck by the role of his wife, Nellie. In films of Monk, we get an image of Nellie as the loyal helpmate—there's some truth to that, she was the person most responsible for keeping him together. But I really came to see her as a fully realized human being with her own goals and dreams, desires and frustrations, as someone who suffered quite a bit. One of the things my book tries to do is look at the so-called male genius in the context of his family...to understand how important his spouse was, his partner, in the realization of that genius.

Let's come back to the issue of diagnosis and treatment. First let me ask you about Monk the musician. When people listen to Monk for the first time, people think, hey, this guy's missing keys—he's playing the wrong notes.

Well, first of all, there's another thing I discovered: Monk's distinctive sound, his approach to the piano, was deliberate, very thought-out. It was hard for Monk to play Monk, in fact. I was privy to the home recordings that Nellie and Nica [Monk's friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter] made of him practicing. You could hear in those rehearsal tapes how he methodically, laboriously developed those ideas. That blew my mind. He developed his approach over time, too. If you listen to very early recordings of Monk, from Minton's Playhouse in 1941, you can hear him beginning to develop this particular touch within a style still very much in the swing idiom of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman's pianist.

But about those wrong notes: Monk's radical idea was not to add more notes to chords but rather take them away, creating much more dissonance. He'd often play two-note chords—for instance taking the third and the fifth out of a major seventh chord and playing just the root and major seventh—and wham, there's Monk's sound. It's the right chord, yet he makes it sound like a completely bizarre choice.


Let's talk more about his sound. It's not just his idiosyncratic chordal clusters, his timing and phrasing, but his touch. If his ideas are out of the mainstream, the way he plays them is up in your face, too. Deliberate, with a heavy hand on the keyboard...like a thumb in the eye of the musical establishment. Does that make any sense?

I know exactly what you're talking about. Monk had small hands, and played with flat fingers, like the mallets you use on vibes, to make up for it—a trick he developed to play like James P. Johnson and the other Stride pianists he came up with. He had the same kind of percussive techniques you use on the drums, an uncanny ability to play different dynamics in different fingers. Some fingers were heavy, as you say, and some were light. And he would hit a note, hold it, then hit another note so that the open string created overtones.

All these techniques—and there are more I could talk about—come from unceasing practice. There's nothing "wrong" or naïve about Monk's playing.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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