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Home Reviews Book Reviews An American original: Family access shed light on the genuis, enigma that was Thelonious Monk

An American original: Family access shed light on the genuis, enigma that was Thelonious Monk

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Robin D.G. Kelley is nothing if not determined. It took him 14 years, from inception to publication, to write “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” the definitive biography of the eccentric, gifted jazz pianist (1917-1982).

Monk was one of five jazz artists to make the cover of Time magazine. The others were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis and Dave Brubeck. In addition to a unique style at the keyboard, Monk also had some success with composition. He wrote the timeless jazz standard “'Round Midnight,” which has appeared on more than 1,000 albums, as well as “Blue Monk,” “Bye Ya” and “Straight No Chaser.”

Kelley, a longtime fan of jazz, decided to write a book about Monk after reading articles and biographies about other artists.

“I had spent years collecting anecdotes [about Monk] that would pass through various jazz biographies and publications,” Kelley said during a telephone interview from the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, his son and a Baldwin baby grand piano. “The bits and pieces stressed his eccentricities and his craziness, but at the time there was no biography of Monk.”

Kelley is no stranger to the publishing world. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Jazz Times and The Nation.

Kelley’s also at home in academia. At 32, he was the youngest full professor at New York University. He was later selected as the chairman of the history department at NYU. Since 2006, he has served as professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California.

Once Kelley decided to tackle Monk’s story, he used a mutual friend to contact the pianist’s family. Kelley spent five years trying to connect with Monk’s relatives.

“They weren’t interested in me writing a book,” Kelley said with a laugh. “I’m sure they had calls [like mine] all the time.”

It wasn’t until one of Monk’s relatives reached out to collectors through the Internet that Kelley found the opening he needed to assure the family he could be trusted with Monk’s story.

“Monk’s brother-in-law sent out a message from his blog saying they were looking for any information,” Kelley explained. “I wrote back saying I had five or six years’ worth of accumulated articles in every language. I told them I was willing to photocopy every single thing for them.”

At the time, Kelley was a professor at New York University. Monk’s son, T.S., a jazz drummer, was living in New Jersey. Arrangements were made for Kelley to deliver the information to T.S. in person.

“I thought it was going to be a quick drop-off,” explained Kelley. “But we sat down and opened up a conversation that lasted five hours.”

The first thing T.S. asked Kelley was why he wanted to write a book about his father.

Kelley answered T.S.’s question, saying, “It’s not enough to say he’s a genius. That’s easy. I want to write about why he was who he was as an artist, father, husband.”

At the end of the visit, T.S. told Kelley the family would cooperate with the writing of the book.

As exciting as it was for Kelley to get the go-ahead from T.S., it wasn’t until he met Nellie, Monk’s wife of 35 years, that he realized the book was actually going to happen.

“When I spoke to Nellie for the first time, that was my ‘fall over’ moment,” Kelley said.

And once he had Nellie’s stamp of approval, people were happy to  share their stories with Kelley.

“When the doors opened and I talked to family and close friends, I was falling over every five minutes,” he explained.

Because there was no central archive holding Monk’s papers, Kelley found himself chasing down scraps of information.

“I thought I was a pretty smart person,” Kelley said. “I was completely wrong.”

There were times Kelley was overwhelmed with what seemed to be an easy task. Sometimes it was hard to manage so much information. Sometimes he just couldn’t get a handle on it.

“My biggest challenges came when I used up two or three weeks finding out the simplest things,” he explained. “For example, to find out if Monk was in the place they said he was. It never occurred to me that it would be this difficult to figure out.”

This book is not for the casual reader.

In the end, Kelley’s exhaustive work ran 447 single-spaced pages with very narrow margins.

There are an additional 140 pages of notes and indices at the end of the book.

It could have been longer.

“I cut 250 pages,” he said, laughing. “If I could do it again, I would do one more cut.”

Although the original book was named Best Book on Jazz by the Jazz Journalists Association and was a finalist for the PEN U.S.A. Literary Award, Kelley prefers the paperback to the original hardback.

“We made 400 corrections for the paperback,” he said.“I had feedback from people who said, ‘You said Monk played Paris on April 22. It was April 23. I know because I have the ticket stub.’ And they would send me the stub.”

It wasn’t until he finished the first draft of the book that Kelley felt he fully knew Monk’s story.

“I was under the impression that once Monk’s story reached 1964, it wasn’t that interesting,” he offered. “What I discovered was that Monk struggled from the time he reached the pinnacle to make ends meet.”

A large part of Monk’s story deals with his battle with mental illness.

He suffered from debilitating bouts of depression, sometimes not leaving his room or getting out of bed for weeks. Other times, he just didn’t speak.

He was late for gigs. He fell asleep at the piano. He danced during sets. Sometimes, he just walked off the stage and let his fellow musicians finish the show.

He drove journalists who tried to interview him to distraction.

He also drank heavily, took drugs and was hospitalized on numerous occasions for erratic behavior.

“Monk was an artist suffering from depression,” Kelley explained. “The presumption is that if they only do this, things will be okay. He got uneven medical care because he didn’t have a regular physician or checkups. He didn’t have medical insurance. His diagnoses were coming largely from mental institutions.”

Although misdiagnoses and erratic medical treatment were part of Monk’s problems, Kelley doesn’t gloss over the issues.

“I don’t relieve Monk of any responsibility,” explained Kelley. “Even when he did have medicine to take, he didn’t do a very good job. He was mixing it with illicit drugs. What saved him was his amazing capacity to start and stop using substances. Except for alcohol, he never showed addictive behavior.”

Kelley also gives Nellie Monk credit for much of Monk’s success. She handled everything, from what he wore to where he played.

“Without Nellie, Monk would have not made it,” he said. “It wore her out.”

Although Nellie cooperated with Kelley, “she wasn’t forthcoming with everything. She told me, ‘Some things I’m taking to my grave.’ I really respect her for that.”

Having access to the Monk family gave Robin D.G. Kelley the tools he needed to change his approach to writing a true and accurate account of Thelonious Monk’s life, genius and struggles.

“Had I not had that opening, I would have written a very, very different book,” he said at the end of our interview. “That opening changed everything.”

Editor’s note: In 17 years of covering the arts, Robin D. G. Kelley is the most interesting person I’ve interviewed – and perhaps the most gracious.
Kelley’s next project is a biography of Grace Halsell, a journalist from Decatur. She was also a speechwriter for Lyndon B. Johnson. Halsell took pills to turn her skin dark and then wrote the 1969 book, “Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi.”




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