Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D. G. Kelley
Free Press, $18.00 (paper)

Despite the steady paycheck, it wasn’t easy being a sideman for pianist-composer Thelonious Monk during his legendary late ’50s residency at Greenwich Village’s Five Spot, the “house that Monk built.” Johnny Griffin, who held down the tenor saxophone in 1958, recalled:

[Monk] wouldn’t pull his music out, and the joint would be loaded, every night. He had it in his briefcase, but he said it would be better if I heard it. So he would play the melody and I’m supposed to retain the melody after he played the first chorus, and I was supposed to play the second chorus coming in with the melody! So you can imagine what happened. I’d mess up, and he’d say ‘No, no, no, let’s do it again.’

The perversity in evidence here—why bring a briefcase full of music and then never open it? Why compose songs of such complexity, sweat every harmonic and rhythmic detail, and then refuse to allow your sidemen to study them?—was pure Monk. In his music and his personal life, he pushed situations to their limits.

Sometimes the aesthetic gamble paid great dividends, as at the Five Spot, where the audience of painters, Beats, and other postwar bohemians welcomed the intimate seat at Monk’s open rehearsal. The very messiness of Monk’s method was proof to them of his adventurousness and even his virtue. When Monk’s band transformed from a disjointed ensemble into a swinging unit, alive to the offbeat accents and melodic surprises that were Monkian signatures, audiences witnessed something that was, to their worldly sensibility, better than a miracle—better because it was not just astonishing but believable too. The evidence was before their ears.

And then there was the downside of the Monkian gamble, often felt keenly by those closest to him. John Coltrane, Monk’s most famous collaborator during his Five Spot residency, recalled that playing with Monk was “like falling down an elevator shaft.” One misstep, one lost measure, and you were flailing with no help on the way. And when Monk wasn’t letting his sidemen flounder, he was leading them with an insistence that sometimes felt too fierce. “[Monk’s] comping was so strong [when he was] playing his own music,” Griffin noted, “that it’s almost like you’re in a padded cell.”

The “padded cell” is a telling metaphor, not only because Monk’s music seems to evoke a self-enclosed world, with its own telltale harmonies and rhythms, but also because Monk spent stretches of his later life in mental-health institutions. Indeed, observers of all stripes have puzzled over the link between Monk’s unconventional music and his personal dissociation from everyday norms. At the Five Spot, he started performing a “spinning dance”—leaving the piano bench and turning in on himself for minutes at a time while gesticulating to the solos of his sidemen. His own body became center and circumference in a performance that could be understood as autism-in-action or a novel form of interpretative dance, and was probably something of both.

Elaborating on the padded cell, Griffin found a more surreal image: Monk’s music was so “overwhelming” that expressing oneself within it was like “trying to break out of a room made of marshmallows.”

When I play Monk’s music myself, I prefer to think that I’m in a marshmallow room rather than a padded cell—even if the acoustics would seem to be the same. Monk’s music is arresting but also, like the image of the marshmallow room, witty, comic, and instantly memorable. It is music of high seriousness and easy laughter, and anyone who plays it can’t help but absorb a bit of its density and its comedy— can’t help but feel the disorientation and reorientation of being offbeat.

Is it any wonder that, of the great jazz composers, Monk has inspired the most tribute albums? The marshmallow room has drawn in koto and berimbau players, string quartets, fingerpicking folk guitarists, salsa bands, masters of theremin and minimoog, and a flotilla of straight-ahead jazz combos. Most jazz players worth their salt pass through it on the way to wherever they’re going.

Its own sort of virtuoso performance, Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original restores Monk to the history he lived through, depicting him less as a tortured isolato and more as an artist who thrived in the cradle of his family, friends, and musical confrères.

Monk birthed some of the most resonant songs in the jazz canon in the apartment where he passed his childhood, on his mother’s piano.

Kelley brings to his project some impressive chops—chops as a musician, which he displays in sensitive passages of musical analysis; as a researcher, one who indefatigably sifted through archives, census records, and obscure journals; as a historian, one who integrates Monk’s life-story into broader currents of African-American social and cultural history, as few jazz biographers do; and as an interviewer, one who was able to coax Monk’s aged wife Nellie out of her zealously guarded privacy (she has since passed away) and who has seemingly spoken with every surviving member of Monk’s circle. If Ouija boards were more trustworthy, Kelley would no doubt have logged considerable hours with the departed as well.

Born in 1917, Thelonious Jr. took on his father’s unusual name—the origins of which Kelley shrewdly traces to a Catholic school for African Americans, founded after Emancipation—but it was his mother, Barbara, who was his rock. When Monk was just four, she left her husband in the railroad town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina and traveled with her three children to New York City in search of a better life. They settled in upper Manhattan’s San Juan Hill neighborhood, which at the time boasted the largest black community in the city. Monk’s father later joined them, but left for good when Monk was eleven. (Racked by asthma, memory loss, and depression, Thelonious Sr. spent his last two decades at the State Hospital for the Colored Insane in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He died far from the notice of his son and wider family.)

Monk’s mother was a constant source of emotional and financial support. She put a roof over his head and fed him even after he became the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, the jazz club that was bebop’s crucible. It’s a telling fact that Monk birthed some of the most resonant songs in the jazz canon—“’Round Midnight,” “Ruby My Dear”—in the apartment where he passed his childhood, on his mother’s piano.

Though a member of the working poor, Barbara had aspirations for young Thelonious, which he took on in his own fashion. She transferred him to Stuyvesant, one of the finest high schools in Manhattan, and secured an instructor to introduce him to the intricacies of Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, and others. But Monk ditched school regularly—in his junior year he missed three out of every four days of class—preferring to work the rent-party circuit in his neighborhood, fronting his own band and earning enough to buy himself his first (but not last) set of sharp clothes. As a teenager he spent one day working for a local ice peddler and vowed that he would never do such hard labor again. He didn’t. But he did take whatever musical gigs came his way—bar mitzvahs, polka bands—and even spent two elliptical years on the road in the Southwest with a female traveling evangelist, possibly named Reverend Graham, possibly carrying the moniker “the Texas Warhorse,” pounding out gospel tunes while the reverend healed her followers of that which ailed them.

In the mid-’40s Monk composed many of the songs that have become emblems of bebop and fixtures of the jazz repertory. His first extended recording session for Blue Note produced, in addition to “’Round Midnight” and “Ruby My Dear,” such gems as “Thelonious” (with its audacious use of a single-note melody, riding above a churning set of harmonic substitutions); “Off Minor” (a tune that, in a typical Monk move, hammers on a dissonant interval rather than using it as a pivot to a more harmonious one); and the gorgeous ballad “Monk’s Mood” (whose modulations take the listener to a series of unexpected and complex major chords, as if securing one surprise ending after another). From the start Monk had a preternatural and unique approach to jazz composition, a harmonic adventurousness that keyed into the dissonances buried in the Tin Pan Alley songbook and a fondness for off-accent phrasing that made his tunes both unforgettable and elusive.

These songs originated, in no small part, in Monk’s obsessive dedication to his craft: he would show up in the afternoon at Minton’s and stay well past closing time, then visit friends who had a piano, wake them at ungodly hours, and continue tinkering. And the songs emerged from the jam sessions at Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House (the latter open until 7 a.m.), where Monk rewrote the rules of jazz alongside swing-band sidemen such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian. At Minton’s and Monroe’s, Monk played for an “inside” audience, one unthreatened by his music’s esoterica, its growing distance from popular genres.

Yet Monk was a rebel against the bebop milieu as well as a creature of it. “I’m one of the cats that used to start them playing like lightning,” Monk said, reminiscing about the feverish tempos that were de rigueur at Minton’s. “I got tired playing fast all the time. You get so you automatically play fast. You can’t play no other way.” The boppish numbers he composed early on, like “Humph” and “Sixteen,” were among the rare songs that he dropped completely from his repertoire.

Monk had the intuition that one could take a sour note and, by milking it, make it sweet.

Monk diverged from bebop practice not only in his penchant for slow and mid-tempos but also in his fixation with compositional structure. Where other beboppers such as Parker were happy to engage in blowing sessions that riffed, say, on a standard blues, Monk chose his songs carefully, layered their melodies with countermelodies, orchestrating even as he jammed. Ironically, his version of bebop has arguably persisted more than others, partly because, for all his eccentricity, Monk was a great teacher and mentor, schooling the likes of Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Randy Weston, and John Coltrane in the intertwined arts of composition, improvisation, and arrangement.

It would be nice if Monk’s emergence from bebop as a singular figure in the jazz world—complete with the beret and smoked sunglasses that became the fashion signature of bebop—brought him the rewards of financial and mental security. But Monk’s creative renaissance was followed by what Nellie called “the ‘un’ years,” in which Monk was dogged by lost gigs, problems with drugs and the police, and the beginning of a manic-depressive disorder that Kelley documents in unflinching detail. Misfortunes piled on top of one another: after Monk took a fall for Powell—two months in the workhouse on Rikers Island, charged with possession after police discovered a packet of heroin that Powell had thrown at Monk’s feet—he lost his cabaret card and so was banned from New York’s clubs. The Monks’ financial situation was so precarious that upon the birth of their first child they had no money for baby clothes. Nellie had to dispatch her best friend to Goodwill to pick up enough random clothes to make three outfits.

Yet, despite these difficulties, Monk did not lose faith in his own artistic vision. Even unemployed, he would “[rehearse] bands that didn’t have the prospects of a dog,” according to Nellie. And he made no effort to pretty up his sound: when Prestige Records broke his dry spell by offering him an exclusive contract, then asked him to record in a studio with an out-of-tune piano, Monk made a point of striking repeatedly on the worst-clunking keys. He had the intuition that one could take a sour note and, by milking it, make it sweet.

Kelley is a biographical omnivore, with an appetite for all facts—musical, sociological, psychological, even pharmacological—related to Monk’s life. Yet, despite Kelley’s thick weave of documentation, it is still something of a mystery how Monk came to compose and develop his jazz-transforming repertoire. And so one can’t help but consider, while poring through the book’s 600-odd pages, the pros and cons of Kelley’s vacuum-like resourcefulness as a researcher.

On the plus side, almost every page of Thelonious Monk has some sharp and unexpected detail, one that takes Monk out of the realm of mythology and grounds him in lived history. We see Monk exploit a rare moment of privacy on D-Day to make love to his future wife for the first time. We picture Monk, ranked jazz’s best pianist by an international critics poll at the time, living in a tiny West Side apartment, where his piano juts into the kitchen and serves as a storage space for laundry and dishes. We observe the self-sabotaging side of Monk, the Monk who yearned for gigs but repeatedly teed off with club owners, defying Birdland’s owner by setting his glass, then his cigarette, on the club’s brand-new piano. And we see Monk not just as a sometimes-absent and absent-minded father but also as an often-devoted one, who takes his son to buy shoes and appreciates the child’s sense of style, or changes his daughter’s cloth diapers without complaint.

Kelley’s love of detail reaches past Monk and extends to the large class of his associates, most of whom have never been examined with such scrutiny. Some revelations are pungent but small. Who knew, for instance, that bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Monk’s straight-laced collaborator in the late ’50s, fibbed about his lineage in order to stress an African connection, inventing a Sudanese past for a father who was from St. Vincent? Other revelations are deeper, more resonant. Monk’s relationship with the Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter—known to her friends simply as Nica—has long intrigued jazz aficionados, raising a fair number of eyebrows over the years. Kelley establishes the depth of their mutual regard and especially of Nica’s platonic devotion to Monk and his music. The first time she heard “’Round Midnight,” she was so floored that she stayed home and missed a plane flight. Three years later, after she met Monk in person, she formed a tightly protective friendship with him. That said, Monk was not her everything. She furnished her Weehawken, New Jersey home with Monk in mind but not only him: she also sponsored a colony of over a hundred cats, some pedigreed and some strays, even though Monk never cottoned to them. The relationship between the two was, in Kelley’s telling, a friendship as unpredictable, asymmetric, and touching as Monk’s own music.

When does the love of detail become a fetish that crowds out more evocative investigations?

At times, though, Kelley’s hunt for the memorable detail can seem to get the better of him. In its last hundred pages especially, which interweave a chronicle of Monk’s concert gigs with a relatively cheerless account of his various breakdowns and hospital stays, the book seems to focus on the life at the expense of the art. Kelley has not much to say about the arrival of such late-career gems as “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Ugly Beauty” (Monk’s only waltz), but much to relate about Monk’s manic episode in San Francisco in 1970—in which he kicked over a hotel’s sand-filled ashtrays, then started cleaning the hotel’s pool—and the choice of private school for his son. One sometimes feels that Kelley is as much Monk’s accountant as his biographer: “Nellie needed major dental work—upper bridgework, gum surgery, extractions, root canals—which set [the family] back $3,390.00.”

Precision in a biographer is certainly a virtue, down to the last cent, but when does the love of detail become a fetish that crowds out more evocative investigations? I closed Kelley’s book feeling I’d read the last word on Monk, but when I started listening again to his ’60s recordings, I realized that Kelley devoted precious little space to Monk’s rapport with his most long-standing musical collaborator, the gifted yet underappreciated saxophonist Charlie Rouse. We learn a great deal about Rouse’s background— how, for instance, he was a talented athlete as a teenager—but his contribution to Monk’s music remains in soft focus. Kelley has a sophisticated paragraph analyzing the earliest recording of the two together, but he does not delve into Rouse’s unique interpretations of Monk’s compositions, how Rouse’s playing affected Monk’s, or why so many critics looked askance at the Rouse-Monk musical relationship.

More generally, there is surprisingly little treatment of an enigma central to Monk’s career: why, for all his adventurousness, he repeatedly turned to the same compositions, varying his repertoire much less than the average jazz musician. Given Kelley’s expertise, speculations on what these compositions gained (or lost) over time would have been appreciated.

Yet this imbalance in Thelonious Monk may not be completely Kelley’s fault. Responding to pressure from his publisher, Kelley cut almost 70,000 words from the manuscript, much of them devoted to Monk’s music. This is a shame because a stronger biography would be a little less admirable and a little more interpretative, less doggedly documentary and more ventilated by musings on Monk’s artistry. One wishes that the superlatively gifted Kelley had found a more elegant way to square the biographical circle—to demythologize Monk while substantiating his achievement, and to deepen the mystery of Monk’s music while giving us access to its mechanics.

Every working artist needs a personal infrastructure—a schedule that allows both for productivity and rest, immersion in work and release. In Monk’s case, that infrastructure had a name: Nellie. Buried within Kelley’s monumental biography is a compelling novella, a nonconformist love story in the off-center tradition of Minnie and Moskowitz or Claudine, with its own peculiar accents and unexpected twist ending.

Nellie was the younger sister of Monk’s best friend growing up in San Juan Hill, and, like Monk, she came from a family that knew poverty and its most profound repercussions: five of her eight siblings died young from tuberculosis and related illnesses, as did her mother, at the age of 37. When Monk fell for Nellie, she was a thin slip—five foot-seven and barely one hundred pounds—with high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, and an air of sophistication earned by a year of college in Florida. Yet this thin slip supported him through her work as an elevator operator and seamstress during his lean bebop years, which they shared. Nellie would bum a cigarette from a friend at work, smoke half of it, then give Monk the other half. And when his star rose, she took on every supporting role possible: arranging his wardrobe, keeping track of his accounts, handling the details of the road, and, most delicately, managing his moods and medications. She was the steady hand on an ever-listing ship, a role played by not a few jazz companions of the period (for instance, Charles Mingus’s wives Celia and Sue).

Like Monk, Nellie had chronic health problems. She suffered from a series of painful abdominal disorders that mystified doctors and often made it difficult for her to eat. Even in her pain, though, she remained in the role of caregiver. Once, while on tour in Los Angeles in 1959, she started vomiting and became violently ill; yet, when the Monks were asked to leave the hotel after Thelonious assaulted someone, it was Nellie who carried the suitcases into her cousin’s home that night. When she went to the hospital, Monk was at a loss, though he kept his sense of humor. “Nellie, I hope you’re not going to kick it,” he joked. “I can’t find my socks!”

Monk delivered a clear message to Nellie: get rid of the juicer if you want me back. Nellie preferred the juicer.

Nellie didn’t kick it, but her relationship with Monk did eventually come to an end—over a juicer. In the late ’60s, Nellie became a devotee of natural carrot-based juices, which she took for her abdominal ulcers and urged upon her husband for his own health problems. She invested in two heavy-duty juicers and kept a large stock of fresh carrots, spinach, celery, and beets at the ready. When Monk played the Village Vanguard, she trucked one of her juicers down there and mixed up drinks in its kitchen. Nellie held an open juicing court in the Monks’ apartment, catering at all hours to a revolving cast of friends and musicians. The noise was so loud, and the pulp so voluminous, that neighbors began muttering. Some campaigned to get the Monks evicted, and one lawyer threatened to sue.

Monk registered his own unease with his wife’s devotion to the health of others. He wanted peace and quiet and longed for the days when her caretaking revolved around him. He moved in with Nica and delivered a clear message to Nellie: get rid of the juicer if you want me back. Nellie preferred the juicer.

How did one of the great love affairs of modern jazz—forged in shared affection, pain, and understanding— spiral to this conclusion? From one angle, the breakup of Monk and Nellie was a function of its early ’70s moment, when many women who had focused so much energy on the care of their husbands started seeking a different balance in their lives (Nellie started her own juicing retail business). From another angle, their breakup was a function of their age and, especially, Monk’s advancing illness: he needed exactly the sort of convalescent care— far from the grind of juicers and the buzz of the jazz world—that Nica’s home could provide.

But in still another sense, it was not a breakup at all, simply the initiation of a slow-motion letting go. At first Nellie and Nica teamed up on Monk’s care, with Nellie frequently staying over in Weehawken. Later, as the months stretched into years, she made the trip less often (to the annoyance of Nica, who hoped for more). Still, Nellie was at Monk’s side at the hospital after he slipped into a coma in February 1982. And she cradled him in her arms, two weeks later, when he passed on.

There are few jazz composers as consistently witty as Monk, and few as romantically atmospheric. That is no mean feat, given that wit often acts as a check on sentimentality. But in Monk’s case, the wit seems to deepen the sentiment, infusing his lushest ballads with off-kilter poignancy.

Take, for instance, “Ruby My Dear,” an early ballad that Monk composed for the only woman he seriously romanced before Nellie. “Ruby” is, like many Monk pieces, deceptively simple on first listen, easy to grasp. Its verse is dominated by a single descending melodic phrase, which fits with the syllables of “Ruby, my dear” and follows the most common chordal sequence in pop music (ii-V-I). In a nice contrast with the descending motion of the phrase, the melody is twice transposed upward to higher keys. As in many Monk pieces, melody seems to determine harmony rather than the other way around: the effect is of a person mulling over an idea (as in a ballad like “Ruby”) or toying with it (as in his faster pieces), allowing its different contexts to suggest different resonances.

Mulling in Monk is akin to exploration, and in “Ruby,” that exploration leads us to a bridge in the utterly alien key of A-major, as far from the piece’s home key of E-flat as possible. (Musicologist Gabriel Solis writes, about such moments in “Ruby,” they “cannot really be explained by recourse to standard tonal theory.”) And while the bridge’s first motif could be heard as an echo of the song’s plangent main melody, Monk quickly undercuts the romance with a coy left-hand gesture, a little boogie-woogie lick that infuses a party atmosphere into what had been a tender serenade. The moment flits by, hinting at the delight packed into longing. We soon leave the key of A-major for an ascending series of complex, dissonant minor chords—voicings without much precedent in jazz, though common in Monk’s vocabulary—until we arrive, magically, at the chord and the melody that begin the piece. The bridge in “Ruby” is one of the richest half-minutes in jazz, both ruminative and full of surprises, as if suggesting the way our memories draw us in and play tricks on us.

Monk certainly knew how to play the blues, but his music is rarely weighed down by sorrow.

Novelist Albert Murray noted, “There is something of the empty ballroom etude in almost all of Monk’s compositions,” and called Monk “a very special descendant of the old downhome honky-tonk piano player who likes to sit alone in the empty ballroom and play around with unconventional chord combinations and rhythms for his own private enjoyment.” Ballads such as “Ruby, My Dear,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Ask Me Now” bear out Murray’s judgment: the compositions seem to carry traces of solitary playfulness, of Monk’s experimentation with the edges of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of melodic songwriting.

It’s easy to appreciate the image of Monk as empty-ballroom experimentalist, but as Kelley’s biography suggests, there was also a highly sociable side to Monk, a joy that he brought to his loved ones and that can be felt in his lightness of touch as a composer. Many of Monk’s compositions manage to be both esoteric in their construction and broadly comedic in their effect—the jazz equivalent, say, of the physical comedy of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, where the set-up to the humor is as devious as the punch lines. Although bebop was the form of jazz that vouched for the music’s seriousness as art, bebop’s greatest composer was a master at turning seriousness on its head.

“Off Minor,” for instance, plays with being “off” in a number of ways. Though written in the key of G-minor, it makes a point of not resolving onto the G-minor chord, instead honking loudly on dissonant B-flat and D flat-fourth chords. In the most celebrated recording, on Monk’s Music (1957), Monk arranged the piece with trumpet and tenor and alto saxophones, and the horns blast out together on the dissonant notes—so loud that one needs to adjust the stereo volume when they enter. There is also a comic tension in how this arrangement handles melody and countermelody: while the melody unfolds with a steady march, the countermelodies stutter and swirl around it, lending the piece the air of a straight man teased by circus clowns.

Monk certainly knew how to play the blues—and he had every reason to, between the police harassment he suffered and the many friends he lost to drug addiction and negligent medical care—but his music is rarely weighed down by sorrow. Even his blues don’t have the blues; they are “off minor,” looking the blues in the eye and managing a sly smile.

In the early ’70s—not long after he’d been hospitalized for two months and subjected to electro-shock treatment and large doses of Thorazine—Monk was getting ready to play the Village Vanguard when he was met near the bandstand by his saxophonist Pat Patrick, an alumnus of Duke Ellington and Sun Ra.

As Monk motioned to hang up his coat in a closet near the drums, Patrick asked him, “What’s happening?”

“Everything is happening all the time,” Monk riposted, still hanging up his coat. Then he swiveled around, looked at Patrick and raised his index finger, savoring a new word and finishing his phrase in his own time: “every googleplexth of a second!” Monk’s music is proof that he lived true to his own dictum.