Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” as Want to Read:
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

4.23  ·  Rating Details ·  1,391 Ratings  ·  140 Reviews
The first full biography of legendary jazz musician Thelonious Monk, written by a brilliant historian, with full access to the family's archives and with dozens of interviews.

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 a
...more
ebook, 608 pages
Published December 8th 2009 by Free Press (first published 2008)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Thelonious Monk, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Thelonious Monk

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Matt
Aug 12, 2010 Matt rated it liked it  ·  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
Phillip
Dec 30, 2009 Phillip rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, music
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
...more
Louise
Dec 27, 2012 Louise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Michael Finocchiaro
Continuing in my reading about jazz, I just finished the masterpiece Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley. It was an incredible read about a largely misunderstood genius. I have always enjoyed listening to Monk, but never exactly understood why. Now, I understand that he would decompose chords by removing a few notes or flattening or sharpening one of them and that is one of the things (along with complex time signatures) that marked his work. Unlike the biographies of Miles or Coltrane that I ...more
Tyra Sherese
Aug 04, 2014 Tyra Sherese rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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!
bartosz_witkowski
Oct 13, 2016 bartosz_witkowski rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned-books, jazz
There's nothing quite like reading a good biography and Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk the Life and Times of an American Original is the most exhaustive one I've read to date!

I've listened to Monk's music since high school and I've always been blown away by his use of space, angular phrases and peculiar rhythms. Reading the book shed some light on the creative process, jazz history as well as the people behind the music.

First of all, let me say what this book is not. It's not a musical mas
...more
Craig Pittman
Jan 24, 2012 Craig Pittman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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.
...more
Dan Petegorsky
Oct 18, 2009 Dan Petegorsky rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
...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
Richard Derus
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,
...more
Paul Secor
May 16, 2012 Paul Secor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Djll
Apr 20, 2011 Djll rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jazz, music
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
Happyreader
Feb 03, 2010 Happyreader rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bio-and-memoir, music
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
Rick
Mar 16, 2012 Rick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Marvin
Nov 28, 2009 Marvin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
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.
Donna Lewis
May 10, 2017 Donna Lewis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well first of all I took five weeks to read this book (while intermixing several books in between) because it is incredibly detailed and dense. However, it was rich in musicians, history, and of course jazz! Mr. Kelley who obviously admired Monk and his music, gives Monk's entire history, month by month, including his childhood, family life and creative life. He discusses Monk's every performance, every masterpiece written, and every musician he ever worked with. Reading this you touch on almost ...more
Jennie
Dec 13, 2009 Jennie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography, music
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
...more
T.R. Hummer
May 24, 2010 T.R. Hummer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Brian
Aug 04, 2010 Brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Previously, almost all of what I thought I knew about Monk was through his music, and a foggy memory of the doco "Straight, No Chaser". Thanks to Kelley's extraordinarily detailed research, I now have a rich portrait of the artist. At times, this book recalls the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees", but it is clear that the obsessive attention to the minutia of Theolonius Monk's journey was born out of a profound love and respect.
Teresa
Feb 14, 2015 Teresa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well written bio of Monk sheds light on the genius behind the music, and the music itself. Kelly digs deep into the times, painting miniature portraits Monk's family, friends and associates without overdoing it. There is no rolling in the slime of drugs or mental illness, no slamming of other musicians. Nicely done.
Jake Adam
Dec 18, 2010 Jake Adam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Harold
Nov 20, 2009 Harold rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, bio-autobio
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.
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.
Tuck
Jan 12, 2010 Tuck rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
everything you wanted to know about monk, and more. nice list of original compositions of monk's, and a selected discography too.
Nate
Sep 23, 2013 Nate rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read...time consuming, but worth the time.
Winter Sophia Rose
Masterpiece!
Peter
Nov 11, 2016 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really interesting read and very complete...to a point. The details concerning Thelonious Monk's seminal albums were often 1-2 pages or less. This means do not throw out your liner notes! Overall this book gave me much needed clarity concerning Monk and his music. He was eccentric but not insane as I once thought. Kelley's fourteen years of research led to the longest biography of Monk thus far, covering almost every single event in Monk's life, but overall it was necessary to gain a complete un ...more
Donald
May 04, 2017 Donald rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
great book about a great musician who is often forgotten
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
  • Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
  • Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
  • Bird Lives!: The High Life & Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker
  • A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album
  • Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
  • Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
  • Beneath the Underdog
  • John Coltrane: His Life and Music
  • Ascension: John Coltrane And His Quest
  • Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper
  • Music is My Mistress
  • Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon
  • But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
  • Living with Music: Jazz Writings
  • Hear Me Talkin' To Ya
  • Visions of Jazz: The First Century
  • Blues People: Negro Music in White America
  • Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters
51690
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
More about Robin D.G. Kelley...

Share This Book



“I could hear something so I realized, of course, what he was trying to tell me was first of all, don’t be judgmental of anybody else, just listen and pay attention and look for the beauty. And then when you find the beauty, study that and don’t bother with the rest of it.53” 1 likes
“Introspection,” which took four takes to produce an acceptable version, was unlike anything that came before it. It embodied the most radical elements of Monk’s approach to composition and improvisation.36” 0 likes
More quotes…