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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  1,662 ratings  ·  159 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, eccentric, taciturn, or childlike. Hi ...more
Hardcover, 608 pages
Published October 16th 2009 by Free Press (first published 2008)
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4.25  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,662 ratings  ·  159 reviews

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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
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
Aug 12, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Dec 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Secor
May 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Tyra Sherese
Aug 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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!
Oct 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Craig Pittman
Jan 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Dan Petegorsky
Oct 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Daniel Pendergraft
Oct 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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,
Jul 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A beautifully written biography of a beautiful man. I fell in love with Monk all over again.
Apr 20, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Feb 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
T.R. Hummer
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) rose from a humble beginning as the son of day laborers in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to become one of the legendary—though misunderstood and underappreciated—composers and musicians of modern jazz. The subtitle of this masterful biography claims that Monk is an "American Original", which has been applied to countless other public figures. In this case, however, the author is absolutely correct; "The High Priest of Bebop" was unlike anyone else, in or outside of the ...more
Dec 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, history, 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
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
Jun 29, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Phil Overeem
Dec 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Exhaustive, relevatory, and mournful bio of one of the most unique composers in classical music. Moves a bit slow at times--especially if you're not a die-hard Monk fan (I am). It'll be hard to top this if anyone tries later on, as many of the sources are "going away." Interesting sidelights include the women and children in Monk's life, his methods as a teacher and bandleader, and the effects of illness on creativity. Very rich read.
Aug 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 14, 2015 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 rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
everything you wanted to know about monk, and more. nice list of original compositions of monk's, and a selected discography too.
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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
“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” 2 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
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