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.

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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