The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk

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Where do you place Monk in the pantheon of jazz artists? There's that traditional jazz, stride technique to his playing, yet he's part of the bebop movement—in fact, as you point out, many of his ideas were pretty far ahead of what beboppers were doing. Songs like "Criss-Cross" are still challenging, 60 years later.

Absolutely. I describe Monk as Janus-faced, looking in both directions at once. He pulls as much from his roots, the old-style traditions he never left, as from really futuristic stuff, musical territory he was the first to visit. He's always going to be associated with the founding of bebop, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I don't place him on the bebop school, though—I place him in his own school. That said, he had an immeasurable influence on the important figures he worked with and taught, directly: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman...the list goes on.


How did Monk view himself in the development of jazz? You write about how he went from being a musical maverick to someone who was almost stodgy about the music, putting down the new directions Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were taking.

He was pissed off about the fact that other artists like Bird and Diz (Parker and Gillespie) got credit for bebop while Monk got placed in the shadows of the movement. He also didn't like the way the jazz avant-garde took credit for harmonic developments he had been working on, and became the darlings of the media.

But as far as where Monk saw himself in what I call the tradition of sonic disturbance, his stylistic criteria came down to this: Does it Swing? Does it sound good to the ear? Does it have a melody? His greatest hero, Coleman Hawkins, said, "Music doesn't go seasonable to me. There's no thing as traditional or modern—music is music." That was Monk, too. Critics were concerned with whether he was a traditionalist or a bebopper or part of the avant-garde, but he didn't play the label game...except if he thought it could sell records.

Both personally and professionally, Monk faced endless challenges. Bipolar disorder, bad treatment, and what Nellie called "the un- years," when Monk had lost his cabaret card and could not play in nightclubs that served alcohol—which was pretty much all of them. And there were more, any one of which could have pushed Monk out of a career in music or even onto the streets. Yet he pushed on. It's like the myth of Sisyphus, set to jazz.

Monk's problems with his cabaret card made his case one of the most egregious in an inherently unjust system. As tough as things got for him, though, he was blessed to have a whole tribe of people who took care of him—not only Nellie, but his whole extended family and later, the baroness.

You make a very strong case for your conclusion that Monk was a manic-depressive. Does that go against the consensus regarding his eccentric behavior?

There really hasn't been a consensus. Just a lot of contradictory assertions—autism, Tourette's Syndrome, all sorts of things. The diagnoses in his medical records range from schizophrenia to, eventually, what we know today as bipolar disorder. I try to be very careful in discussing the way the medical profession understood his problems. The science of chemical imbalances was not very sophisticated during Monk's lifetime.

What's far more important to Monk's story than his diagnoses or misdiagnoses, for me, is pharmacological history. Thelonious was given large doses of thorazine by one set of doctors, and another who was giving him large doses of amphetamines under the guise of "vitamins". You can see how that might have created the conditions for strange behavior.

Do you think Monk's career might have evolved differently if he'd received proper treatment earlier, that he might have composed more or taken his music in new directions?

It's a very tricky and fascinating problem. As I've said, they didn't really understand manic-depression as a condition or lithium as a treatment in the 1950s, when his manic-depressive episodes really began to be a problem. But for the purposes of discussion, if he had been treated that way, I actually think his creative output would have been diminished. Lithium acts like a blanket on the brain for many people. When Monk eventually was prescribed it, later in life, it contributed to an unwillingness or a lack of desire to play.

On the other hand, he would likely not have had so many of the very difficult episodes which contributed to his overall malaise and fatigue as time went on. I think his lack of creative output from the mid-1960s on, as a composer, at least, has to do with the level of fatigue he felt from travelling all the time, getting hardly any sleep, and just generally not feeling very good—he suffered from an increasing number of health problems, some of which had to do with the thorazine he was taking.

What does Monk's life and career say for the belief that radical, innovative creative vision goes hand in hand with dysfunction or instability?

Kay Redfield Jamison has written several books on this very subject—notably Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The idea is that the highs and lows of manic-depression create the context for opening the mind to new possibilities. I'm skeptical. This meme doesn't address the many whole, functional people who were revolutionary artists and musicians. I also think it's a romantic notion: in Monk's case, the negative consequences of the disease created barriers to being able to work. Monk was a very methodical, careful composer. He wasn't someone who could ever put a manic episode to use.

Still, on first listen the music seems kind of wacky, and his behavior was eccentric—it's natural to ask if there was something going on there...

A lot of what I try to challenge is this very issue: whether there's any correlation between Monk's music and his eccentricity. Yes, Monk was known for his crazy hats, for getting up from the piano and dancing in the middle of a song, for sometimes wandering out the club in the middle of a gig. A lot of critics, even those who were sympathetic to him, would say, well of course his music is a mirror of his behavior. But what I found in the book was that Monk was really a hard-working family man, putting two kids through private school...and he was a showman, too. If you see the documentary Straight No Chaser, there's a scene at an airport where Monk's just spinning around and around. I interviewed Michael Blackwood, who shot that footage in 1968. He said Monk was very well aware of when the camera was on him—he was performing for the camera. He knew why people paid to see him in nightclubs. He played to their expectations.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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