Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D.G. Kelly
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Dec. 4, 2009
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Originalby Robin D.G. Kelly
Free Press, 588 pp., $30
Included in the pantheon of jazz geniuses alongside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane is pianist/composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. His musical mind was so far ahead of the curve that it took his peers, let alone the jazz world at large, decades to appreciate both his idiosyncratic pianism and his enigmatic compositions. In what is surely the most exacting and in-depth biography to date on this fascinating musician, author Robin Kelly painstakingly documents Monk's entire career with more than 100 pages of dense footnotes, select discography/videography information, and an impressive array of interviews from within the jazz world and Monk's immediate family. He contends it was Monk who initially laid the foundation for modern jazz, years before Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were credited for creating bebop, the revolutionary sounds that changed jazz forever. Kelly also takes umbrage with Monk's portrayal in the press as the bizarre, mystifying, anti-social "High Priest of Bebop." Eccentric to be sure, Monk's unconventional behavior was fueled, in part, by a bipolar disorder that was exacerbated with age. Perhaps a bit dense for the jazz novice, this tome is a real treat for hepcats and best read straight, no chaser.