4

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

^
Keep Houston Press Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Houston and help keep the future of Houston Press free.

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.

Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.