Djll's Reviews > Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley
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's review
Apr 20, 2011

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bookshelves: jazz, music
Read from April 20 to 30, 2011

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 family man three generations before he was born.


OK, I was about to give up on this at around page 97. There are so many poorly written sentences, rambling, unnecessary details and contradictory, nonsensical turns, it's freaking annoying as hell. Kelley seems to be as confused over Monk's piano playing as the old-jazz critics he is quoting. There are distracting changes of tone and all-too-intimate asides such as "There was no mistaking the fact that she was a fully grown woman." (describing a young Nellie, Monk's wife-to-be) It's more than odd -- it's inappropriate in a biography such as this. It reads as if Kelley had composed stretches of the book as a bedside story for Monk's great-grandkids. The book's voice jumps around from that kind of warm & cozyness to more newspaper-style reportage, and that bothers me.

Then it gets better. Once Kelley latches on to Blue Note's "discovery" and promotion of Monk and his music, laying bare the PR campaign versus the eyewitness reports, all set against a backdrop of a fractious, fertile NY "bebop" scene, the book starts to cook. Some good new information is unearthed; for instance, it's interesting to find out just why so many of Monk's sidemen from the late 40s were a.) obscure, and b.) Muslim. The scenes set in the Hawkins tour through Portland, Oregon, are illuminating and gratifying. You really get the sense of the comparative isolation of smaller African-American communities, and what it meant to have a guy like Coleman Hawkins show up on their street.

However. For a reader unfamiliar with the Bird/Dizzy foundational story of 'modern jazz,' some of this may be rough going. Kelley lays out the alternative story of Monk as fountainhead, and along with it the myth of Monk as a 'weirdo,' but doesn't go much into the standard story (which, admittedly, has been covered to exhaustion). If you don't know that story, you may feel like a square.
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