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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

4.24 of 5 stars 4.24  ·  rating details  ·  1,124 ratings  ·  119 reviews
THELONIOUS MONK is the critically acclaimed, gripping saga of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors, he was temperamental, eccentr ...more
ebook, 608 pages
Published December 8th 2009 by Free Press (first published 2008)
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Aug 12, 2010 Matt rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Jazz/music fans, black history/civil rights fans
Hard to rate -- if I'm going on exhaustive research and attention to detail, I'd give it 5 stars. It reads a little slow and tends to get into a play by play of "how the shows went over" a bit too much, I thought, but generally this was an incredible, interesting read. It's sometimes hard to connect the thoughtful, reasonable man portrayed throughout this book with the character you see spinning around in "Straight, No Chaser," and the interpretive gap still has me a bit off guard -- did Kelley ...more
some super sweet sweetheart gave this to me for a gift - i'm hella enjoying it!

this is a really well researched book. it dispells lots of myths that have amassed over the years about this great american composer. critics mis-read thelonious, seeing him as some sort of hermetic freak of nature who just fell out of the sky with a highly idiosyncratic style.

nah. monk was a genius who was highly studied, and could play a variety of musics. he CHOSE to play the way he did, which is contrary to the p
Craig Pittman
A detailed and masterful biography of my favorite jazzman and the pianist Duke Ellington once saluted as having "the baddest left hand in the history of jazz."

I started reading this book in April and soon discovered I couldn't just zoom through it the way I do most books. I had to take my time. I had to savor its flavor. Robin Kelley spent 14 years digging into Monk's life and music, and he's packed every bit of his research into the book -- and put a jaw-dropping anecdote on nearly every page.
Dan Petegorsky
Robin D.G. Kelley worked some 14 years on this biography, and it shows. Monk couldn’t have hoped for a better biographer than Kelley – a scholar, musician, historian, and clearly a fan – and Kelley’s given us a portrait that’s at once loving, meticulous and poignant. Kelley’s skills are all at their best when he combines his musical and historical insights, for example, in the early chapters on Monk’s San Juan Hill neighborhood as it and the jazz scene developed.

Much as a I loved this book, I d
Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways
Rating: 3* of five

I wish I'd never read this book. I now don't like Thelonious Monk, who comes across in these pages as a self-centered snot whose mental illness could and should have been medicated to ameliorate its nasty effects on those around him; and I flat don't like the selfishness and effrontery of the man.

His music is great. I will do my damnedest to forget the rest.

I spent 451pp hoping that soon I'd get past the building distaste for the man whose talent I'd revered for decades. Sadly,
I'm a big fan of Monk's music and of (good) scholarly writing about Jazz, so this was a natural. Kelley leaves no stone unturned and offers a compelling picture of the great pianist and composer. He certainly has an argument to make, mainly that Monk's strange behavior was a product of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Kelley's diagnosis effectively serves to humanize Monk and make him seem more pitiable than bizarre, at least to modern readers; it's not really possible to fully convince with such a ...more
Monk's neighborhood in 30's NYC is a lively place where all the women are beautiful, all the men are accomplished, and all the children are WAY above average. At least, that's how Robin D.G. Kelley paints it. Are we trying too hard to send an "empowering message" to an "underserved community?" This portrait comes along after an exhaustingly labyrinthine stroll through Monk's ancestry and the tangled lives of his post-slavery predecessors. I knew Monk was a family man, but I didn't know he was a ...more
Reading this book felt like living Monk’s life. You finish wondering if there could possibly be any gaps in his history – or the history of where he lived, who he knew, or the African-American experience of the time. You’ll definitely enjoy reading this book if you love jazz and want to read about every significant jazz musician who played from the 1930s through the 1970s. Even Monk’s lesser-known sidemen get significant backstories. Plus it feels like every rehearsal, every gig, every jam sessi ...more
Daniel Pendergraft
So amazing to read about. Monk is my hero, to read about his often troubled but colorful life was an emotional journey for me. Sometimes we assume we know about musician's struggles just from trite anecdotes and listening to their music, but their lives are so much richer and diverse that we can understand. This book is a monolithic scholarly undertaking: Kelley has certainly done his research, providing a ridiculous amount of historical and personal background information, even getting to speak ...more
I found this book through the NY Times Best 100 Books of 2009. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it does not appear to be a National Book Award or Pulitzer finalist or nominee. If should be. Just a browse through The Notes reflects 14 years of interviews documenting musical history that would be lost forever without Robin D. G. Kelley's initiative.

The title is perfect. This is a chronological portrayal of an American life and family against the backdrop of its time. Monk, while musically ahead of his
Wow...what a beautiful story! I enjoy reading biographies (and autobiographies and memoirs) and I really enjoyed reading about the life of Thelonious Monk! I had to really take my time reading this one...LOTS of details and very well researched and written. I have been listening to a LOT of Monk's music while reading this book, and I can't seem to get the song "Ruby, My Dear" out of my head...I LOVE that song! Excellent book written by Robin D. G. Kelley!
The LP Alone in San Francisco, the take on Remember, is a sad shattering, heartfelt affair. No one, but no one, touches a key like this high priest of prolapsed middle voices. I listened to his reverse psychology on Remember so many times that I myself forgot how to play it. Then the great meaning of it opened onto a vast vista of senility and pain. Cascading, uncontrollably augmenting, mistaken. hesitating.
Excellent biography on the jazz legend. Robin Kelley worked on this book for 14 years and it shows in its incredible detail and insight to the great jazz pianist and composer.
T.R. Hummer
It is scarcely possible for me to convey the pleasures of this book. It is exhaustive in its presentation of known facts, and yet concise; it is highly resistant to the pervasive mythology (much of it pernicious) that has polluted Monk's aura, and--vitally important--the man can WRITE. As he is an historian with a distinguished track record in that field, he comes to this job (which is clearly a labor of love for him) far more completely equipped than many who assay the field of jazz biography ( ...more
keith koenigsberg
This Monk biography is more compendious than the other couple I have read, but not necessarily more illuminating or entertaining. Kelley provides a lot of detail but is not much of a storyteller. Furthermore, although he tries to refute some of Monk's reputation for unreliability, childishness, and flat-out wierdness, he does little but reinforce these impresions with his descriptions of Monk's actual lateness to the bandstand, propensity to wander the neighborhood high and drunk, and disappeari ...more
Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz
I was really excited to read this book--heard that it was coming out a while ago and was probably the first person to check it out of the library--but ultimately I'm a little disappointed. Nonetheless, it is an incredible example of meticulous research--Kelley provides a very detailed and thoughtful narrative of all aspects of Monk's life: his music, his family, his youth, his experiences with religion & spirituality, his (ab)use of drugs & alcohol, and of course, his struggles with ment ...more
Thelonious Sphere* (* yes, that's his middle name) Monk. What do you know about this dude? Are you into jazz? Have you sampled any of his bag? Misterioso? Blue Monk? Epistrophy? Ruby, my dear?
Do you have any interest in the man behind the music? His relationships with guys like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins? His arrests? His roots? How the music was made? What was the social/cultural context in which he made his way?

This book takes all of that within its covers. Kelley has done a m
Paul Secor
A difficult book to rate.
On one hand, it has as much factual detail as I probably will ever need to know about Thelonious Monk's life.
On the other hand, it captures very little of the spirit and life that I hear and sense in Monk's music. Perhaps that's a difficult thing to capture in a biography, but I missed it.
I'll give it four stars for the multitude of facts and hope that someone else writes a biography that captures the spirit of the man.
It's a very good well researched bio. There's a few thing that bothered me, but all in all that's to be expected. I particularly didn't care for Kelley's continued use of the "Solfeggio" in reference to the grunting Monk would sometimes do while playing. I did like the fact that the author realized that Monk was well grounded in what came before him.
Jake Adam
The first few chapters are a little chunky, heavy with information, so it's hard to feel the thread of the story, but once Thelonious comes into adolescence, the book comes into its own, presenting a readable and informative account that gives a clear look at Monk, specifying his gifts and his manias.
Steve Leach
After reading 4 or 5 Monk bios and enjoying them, despite their clunkiness, because I'm a Monk nut, I devoured this one because it was so good. Fortunately, the author is a jazz/Monk aficionado who can write. And he found lots of folks to talk to who were close to Mr. Monk.
Rob Charpentier
In many ways this is an absolutely great book, while in another sense it actually fails so badly that I hesitate to review it at all. Strangely, its saving graces are also precisely the exact same reasons why it falls from favor as well.

Essentially, the core problem is that this is a scholarly biography, one that apparently took roughly fourteen years to write. Generally, this type of biography tends to overburden the reader with names, dates and places that can at times read more like some sor
I don't usually read biographies, but this was compelling and well-written. I've been on a big Monk kick for the last few months, and this was a fantastic introduction to the man, his music, and his career.

As a scholar, I was blown away by his comprehensiveness (14 years in the writing, with ca. 70,000 words cut out of the manuscript). I deeply respect the amount of work I know it takes to refute some minor claim in a footnote. Kelley also demolishes many of the well-circulated myths and storie
everything you wanted to know about monk, and more. nice list of original compositions of monk's, and a selected discography too.
This is a heavy book. You are literally getting "The LIFE" of Monk. Check out the page count. I did the math and each week of his life gets about two sentences. Some get much more. And not a week is skipped.

"The first week in April of 19xx Monk played a one week gig at Milton's. That gig ended, and he did a two-week tour of the Catskills with [insert players]. After that gig, he decided to take a day off with his wife. After the day off, he didn't have anything to do for two days until [insert p
Excellent read...time consuming, but worth the time.
Well written, and certainly an interesting read. A little too much detail for me. I got the sense that, if I was a super-super fan of Monk's, when I was reading 4 straight pages that were just about the grades and teacher comments he got when he was 8 years old in the third chapter, I would have looked at the nearly 500 pages left to go and would have said, "Bring it on." Instead, I looked at all those pages left in the book and wondered if I really wanted to dive into that many tedious details ...more
Oct 03, 2010 Lydell rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Yes
For me, the biography is strictly for die-hard Monk fans. Yet, it maybe one of the best jazz biographies to capture in great detail the business environment in which a professional jazz musician had to endure to earn a living during the mid-20th century.

Another of the book’s gem is Kelley’s ability to weave skillfully into the narrative short and lively (and sometimes poignant) biographical sketches of Monk’s sidemen and other jazz artists.

I read the biography because I wasn’t a die-hard Monk
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is a meticulously researched and engaging read that seeks to put the record straight with any chaser. Popular notions about Monk tend to emphasize his lack of formal training, his bizarre behavior and unique fashion sense. Drawing upon a wealth of family documents, Kelley masterfully weaves a story that captures Monk's genius and his humanity with compassion and profound appreciation.

As an educator, I found myself d
I wanted to give this book 3 stars and then realized it would be a reflection of my inadequacies as a reader and not about the book. This is a biography and I can't imagine anyone doing a more thorough job of telling the story of Thelonious Monk.

My three stars would have been based on it's being too detailed, too long, too comprehensive. But you can't really fault a book or it's author for doing an excellent job. It's not fluff and it's not a book to breeze through. It's not just about Monk or
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Robin D.G. Kelley (b. 1962) is a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. From 2003-2006, he was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia University. From 1994-2003, he was a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University as well the chairman of NYU's history department from 2002-2003 ...more
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