Podcast • June 17, 2014

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, ...


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

Podcast • March 8, 2011

Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) ...

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.