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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