Blue Notes

Get Lit: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley

Though his stature as an icon of jazz is secure today, for much of his actual performing life, pianist/composer Thelonious Monk was not always so well-received by jazz critics or general fans.

His personal eccentricities - the hats, the dancing, the attacking piano keys - and odd/unprofessional behavior (whether real, imagined, or exaggerated) often overshadowed the music, itself rife with offbeat syncopations. But considering that the man produced such standards including "Ruby, My Dear," "Well, You Needn't," "Straight No Chaser," "Epistrophy" and the signature "'Round Midnight," the proof is in the tunes.

Written over the course of 14 years with full access to, though not final say from, the Monk family, Kelley has produced perhaps the most exhaustive bio ever on a jazz musician. He also theorizes that much of Monk's behavior and uncommunicativeness would today be diagnosed medically as bipolar disorder.

In addition to an incredibly detailed telling of Monk's life, the book is filled with stories about Monk's relationships with jazz players (Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington), and rich evocation of the New York clubs of the '50s and '60s. Later dubbed "the High Priest of Bebop," Monk was nonetheless angered that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got most of the credit (and press...and gigs...) for "inventing" the genre.

Some of Kelley's best analysis, though, involves not music, but the two women whom took care of Monk for most of his adult life: wife Nellie and Rothschild heiress/jazz patron the Baroness Nica Koenigswater. Whether the former was picking out his socks and rustling him out of bed or the latter transporting him to gigs and providing endless financial support, it's clear that Monk was incapable of taking care of himself without them.

Surprisingly - even though Monk spent almost his last decade living platonically with Nica - the ladies got along extremely well. That Kelley give their efforts full due credit is admirable (Nica, and in particular her relationship with Monk, is also the subject of The Jazz Baroness, a current HBO documentary). Houston crops up only once, in a footnote that Monk missed a summer 1972 "Giants of Jazz" date at what was called the Houston Astrodome Jazz Fest.

And while, like a literary Biggest Loser, there is a more slender and easily digestible volume waiting to burst out of these pages (more than 100 of them tiny footnotes), the reader's patience is tested, but definitely rewarded with the first major look at the life of a real musical genius.

Free Press, 608 pp., $30.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero