Robin Kelley’s Transcendental Thelonious Monk


Robin Kelley‘s superb biography brings the Thelonious Monk story back from the ragged edge to the creative center of American music. And it brings my reading year to a blessedly loving, gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist, and utterly one-off climactic note. There may be another jazz biography as thickly detailed, as audibly lyrical, as passionate, as thrilling as this one, but I can’t bring it to mind.

There’s a vastly detailed, fresh take here on an immortal jazz pianist and composer whose life is often remembered as freakish, at best impossibly mysterious. Not that jazz players hadn’t known from the early 1940s that young Monk was a giant, and ever afterward that those odd, distinctive Monk tunes (nearly 100 of them) are the exotic orchid-like treasures of the American song book.

But this was a man who mumbled at the keyboard, got up and danced around it onstage, showed up late and sometimes disappeared; who did time for small drug offenses and famously lost his “cabaret card” required to play in New York jazz joints. This was a man who suffered bipolar disease and finally died in 1982 in the care of the same rich European lady who’d been Charlie Parker’s last refuge almost 30 years earlier. It is an impossibly eccentric story until Robin Kelley fills in the life of an unshakeably original musician, and with endless family detail paints a fresh picture of a consistently generous friend, a revered and attentive son, father and husband, in triumph and trouble.

In this telling Monk emerges as (not least) a heroic African-American Emersonian at the keyboard. Monk’s insistence that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” resonates with Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. Monk’s stubborn, self-sacrificing attachment to his own aesthetic summons up Emerson’s “trust thyself” wisdom, and his advice that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” “To believe your own sound,” (paraphrasing “Self-Reliance”) “… that is genius.” Monk knew.

One of Robin Kelley’s many arguments with the received wisdom on Monk is that, though he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem after 1941, and a cornerstone of the regeneration of jazz at mid-century, he belongs to no genre, no “period.”

I kind of break with tradition: I don’t see him as part of the bebop movement. I see his harmonic ideas as being fundamental to so-called bebop, but he wasn’t really out of that. He spent more time in the early forties hanging out in these old piano parlors, at James P. Johnson’s house, with the great stride pianists up in Harlem at that time, Clarence Profit, Willie “The Lion” Smith… He learned piano from an African-American woman who lived in his neighborhood named Alberta Simmons. Nobody’d ever heard of her until my book. She was a fabulous stride pianist. She was part of the Clef Club. She knew Eubie Blake and Willie “The Lion” and all these cats. And so, he grew up playing that and maintaining the old stride piano style because of three things.

One, they believed in virtuosity, but virtuosity that is expressed through your individual expression, not just through speed. How could you take a tune that everybody plays, like “Tea for Two,” and really make it sound like you, like your inner soul.

Two, Monk learned from these guys all the tricks that became fundamental to his playing: the bent note, for example. We say “Monk was so amazing because he could bend notes.” Well, wait a second. Listen to James P. Johnson play Mule Walk. He’s bending notes. It’s all about that. Monk learned all that from those guys, the clashing, the minor seconds, they’re playing that stuff back in the twenties.

And then, you mention Monk’s mumbling. Well, Willie “The Lion” Smith said in his own memoir, “if a piano player’s not mumbling or growling, you ain’t doing anything.” That’s old school.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

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  • Mr. Lydon, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this beautiful Christmas present. You have a talent for interviews that I greatly admire, but this one knocked it out of the park! Robin Kelly obviously loves Thelonious Monk and understands him in ways that we just can’t, I will be getting a copy of Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original and sharing it with my three children.

    Christopher thanks again for this great gift from Robin Kelly and most of all from the man Thelonious himself, a great American Treasure.

  • Really cool Chris, I’m loving this interview as a view on Monk and modern jazz itself. This book is also a great companion to the Terry Teachout bio of Louis Armstong named POPS. Great book and interview Robin Kelly provides true incite and Chris once again awesome conversation.

  • katemcshane

    I listened to this interview during several breaks at a terrible job. At first, I didn’t realize it was Robin D. G. Kelley, because the podcast omitted the middle initials, but I recognized his voice. I once sold books for a reading Robin did at Harvard for YO’ MAMA’S DISFUNKTIONAL! He was wonderful. I read every book of his that was in print at the time. He’s one of the handful of authors I periodically check for anything new. Isn’t he brilliant?!! And sweet. I can’t wait to read this. Thanks, Chris.

  • Potter

    Usually an interview about music winds up less than satisfactory because I prefer to have the experience of the music.

    This was truly an amazing interview and maybe your best Chris and there can’t be a better one about Monk’s music. This adds to the experience of the music.

    First, you gave this the time it needed. And then you gave Robin Kelley the room to pour out- especially on each song as they were playing softly in the background. That as you were gently leading with informed comments both ( and best) musically but also biographically. The focus was on the music and the essence of Monk’s innovation and creativity. I prepared myself by listening to CD’s that I have. For me it’s Monks simplicity I love- his left hand- his cords- the spirit coming through, the groping. Especially the groping- and in Crepuscule for Nellie and the part of the interview where you played that and were talking about it- that was a high spot for me. I love that piece. I know piano basics. I had lessons as a kid. I love the piano. I have one- keep it in tune. I don’t know a lot of technical language- yet I could understand enough of the analysis you both were talking about.

    This interview too needs another listen there is so much jam packed into it!

    This was a gift- thank you and also Robin Kelley for the love you seem to have put into your book.

  • nother

    “So a lot of critics didn’t like me back then—still don’t today—because they saw me as an arrogant little nigger. Maybe I was, I don’t know, but I do know that I wasn’t going to have to write about them. Anyway, Max and Monk felt like that, and J.J. and Bud Powell, too. So that’s what brought us close together, this attitude about ourselves and our music.” – Miles

    When I think of my favorite Jazz – and especially when I think of Monk – it’s through the prism of race relations. Emasculating bigotry and the consequential “double consciousness,” permeated both the playing of, and listening to, this American art.

    For Monk, there was even a third consciousness, that of a man possessed. “he was a great put-on artist, too, and that’s the way he kept people off him, by acting crazy like he did.” – Miles

    “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

    Monk takes Emerson’s words to heart. So much so that he refuses to conform to even his African American contemporaries. One can imagine Monk quoting Shakespeare:

    “I am too high-born to be propertied,

    To be a secondary at control

    Or useful serving-man and instrument”

    Miles gushes over Monk in his autobiography, but he also recounts the legendary controversy over his asking Monk to lay out and not play behind him on the album they did together. Because “Monk never did know how to play behind a horn player.”

    What I read into the controversy is that Monk did not want to be secondary to Miles…nor should he be…nor will he be.

    Great interview, and I love the insight about Monk influencing the sounds of the album “Money Jungle.”

  • sidewalker

    Wow! What a scrumptious interview. It was as if Chris and Robin had joined in on a session with Monk, and their harmonies didn’t feel out of place at all.

    Listening to this interview recalled the enthusiastic one with Alain Pacowski from a couple of years back on Open Source “Le Hot Jazz”, which is also a favorite.

    Chris, do we have to wait so long again? How about a sister series to ‘Whose Words There Are’ on Jazz? ‘Whose Melodies These Are’ seems like the perfect way to enter a new decade.

  • I love when you do music. More, please! I agree with sidewalker, a series like ‘whose words these are’ could be pretty great.

  • Jazzman

    Last year my company was sold and the purchasing entity decided to block ROS and many other formerly “open” (to me) websites. This is by the way of explanation of my rather sudden disappearance from one of the premier internet blogging sites it has been my pleasure to frequent since last May. Happily the illiberal company sold my division to another company (which promptly laid off a 3rd of the workforce and consequently I’m busier than I have been in many years – but at least I still have a job) but whose IT dept. so far in 2010 has an incredibly liberal policy and ROS (as well as most other sites) is now open to me once again.

    I heard Robin Kelley discussing his book on the radio (I’ve been listening to the radio since my car CD player died) which also included interesting commentary from Matthew Shipp another modern pianist whom I enjoy (some say he is the heir to Monk) and shortly thereafter I purchased Thelonius Monk TLATOAAO for $8 after a Border’s 40% off coupon and $10 in “Border’s Bucks.”

    I have been too busy to give Robin Kelley’s work proper attention but this interview will spur me to correct that. I hope to be a contributor here once again as time allows.

    Peace, Hi & Happy New Year to Chris, Potter, Nother, KateMcShane, & Sidewalker (my old ROS friends on this page.)

    Peace to ALL,


  • Potter

    Hello Jazzman!!! Good to hear from you! You are in for a treat with this interview.

  • Kate McShane


    I’m not here very often, but I happened to look at this thread tonight and saw your comment. I felt so happy to hear your voice again. I once saw a comment of yours on the Huffington Post and I wrote to tell you I was “katermc”, but the HP is so huge that I’m sure it was lost. I hope you’re well. I’ve thought of you.


  • Jazzman

    Kate: I’m glad you still visit the ROS site, albeit infrequently. As I said above, I’ve been blocked from the site since last May and am too busy to contribute much lately. I’m sorry you are still manifesting “terrible” jobs (BTW are you still on the BPL waiting list?) and this is not the forum to examine effect and cause but you have my well wishes for what you would consider a more positive situation. I am not the jazzman of the HuffPo, I only use that handle here and hardly ever comment anywhere else. I’ve found that it is unrewarding (for all concerned) to opine philosophically in many blogs and forums without engendering animus and incivility. Dialogue with those of differing opinions is difficult at best and downright hostile at worst. I miss the discussions with you Potter, Allison, and Nick et al. as they were spirited, enlightening, and mostly civil even in total disagreement. I have often thought of you and wondered how you were progressing.

    Peace and All the Best,


  • Kate McShane


    You’re such a nice man.

    I, too, am sorry I continue to manifest miserable jobs. No, I’m not still on the waiting list at the BPL. I assume you’re talking about THE SECRET. I read all the time about how to do this differently, but I can’t seem to get it. I’ve read that people with histories like mine have an extremely difficult time making the transition to a belief in a loving world. We can’t seem to adjust to the idea that the universe wants to give us something good. I agonize over this every day, trying to understand how it can be different, what I need to do differently.

    What continues to be wonderful for me, though, is jazz. When I get up in the morning and put on an iTunes playlist, I feel happier, safer, more thrilled than I feel all day. I love the musicians and I feel grateful for their work, inspired by it, and life is amazing, at least for those first hours.

    I hope to come back to this site, to have time to listen to the interviews, and to write about them again. It would be so nice to hear what you think. I think I should do this, because for the first time in decades, I stopped writing when I took this job. I’ve really missed some of the people on this site.

    It was so sweet to hear from you.