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High priest of bebop

Portrait of a soaring talent’s struggle with drugs, instability

Thelonious Monk was alternately viewed as a genius who introduced new ideas to jazz or a hack who simply couldn’t play well. Thelonious Monk was alternately viewed as a genius who introduced new ideas to jazz or a hack who simply couldn’t play well. (Veryl Oakland/Retna Ltd.)
By Steve Greenlee
October 25, 2009

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Twenty-seven years after his death, Thelonious Sphere Monk remains jazz’s most enigmatic figure. The pianist presided over the birth of bebop at a small New York club, and he composed some of the music’s most enduring themes, including one - “Round Midnight’’ - that has become jazz’s de facto anthem.

His own playing, however, was a constant source of controversy; from the start, critics were divided over whether he was a genius who introduced new ideas to jazz performance or a fraud who simply couldn’t play very well. His personal life was at once stable and chaotic. He had a doting wife who managed his day-to-day affairs, but drinking, drugs, and mental illness were constant companions. For stretches, he barely communicated with anyone, and on more than one occasion he wound up institutionalized or jailed.

Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of history and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, comes closer than anyone ever has in attempting to find out exactly who Monk was. “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original’’ is a massive and impressive undertaking. Kelley says he spent 16 years working on the book, and it shows. He reviewed every scrap that had been written about the man, pored over medical bills and other documents, listened to hours of private recordings, and conducted interviews with friends, family, and fellow musicians. Thoroughly researched, meticulously footnoted, and beautifully crafted, “Thelonious Monk’’ presents the most complete, most revealing portrait ever assembled of the man known as the high priest of bebop.

Several threads run through the book’s narrative arc. One involves Monk’s mental state, a constant source of frustration to those around him. While we can never be sure of his malady - bipolar disorder? manic depression? - we do know that his psychiatric problems and his drug use were inextricably linked, even if the explanation is that the drugs prescribed to treat his problems only exacerbated them. The other involves his constant struggle for respect. Early in his career, he was unintentionally creating a new kind of jazz in a small club called Minton’s Playhouse. But soon his contemporaries - saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie - overshadowed him, ultimately earning more fame, money, and admiration. For Monk’s entire life, it bothered him that Bird ‘n’ Diz, as they were known, came to be identified with bebop’s birth, when he believed that he was its true father. As far as his own style of playing was concerned, critics at first thought he was weird and unrefined yet years later he was dismissed for not developing his style further. He couldn’t win.

One of the knocks on Monk is dealt with right out of the box. Kelley opens his book not with the pianist’s birth but with a scene from circa 1960, when he would have been about 43 years old. Monk’s 12-year-old niece is visiting him. She notices a book of Chopin compositions on the Steinway. “What are you doing with that on the piano?’’ she asks him. “I thought you couldn’t read music.’’ Monk sits down, opens the book, and blazes through a difficult piece “at breakneck speed.’’ It is not the last time in “Thelonious Monk’’ that Kelley dispatches the notion that Monk was untrained. Monk knew his stuff, better than most. He merely preferred to follow his own bliss - to find the jagged edges in the crevices of melody that most of us miss.

What sets Kelley’s book apart from most biographies is its unwavering attention to detail. Thankfully we have nearly 3,000 footnotes, or we’d wonder how in the world the author learned all this. Note this scene from early 1957: “Although Monk was proud of his baby grand, it quickly became an extension of the kitchen countertop and a storage space for household clutter. When he sat down to play, his back stood just a few inches from the dishwasher.’’ His sources for that passage included an old photograph and recent interviews with Monk relatives.

Those were the happy days with Nellie and the kids. And lucky for Monk he had Nellie, whose dedication was unflagging, despite his arrests on charges of drug possession and disorderly conduct, his bouts with mental illness, and his platonic but odd friendship with Nica de Koenigswarter, the Rothschild heiress and jazz patron who took Monk under her wing.

Perhaps above all else, we should see “Thelonious Monk’’ as a love story - of Monk’s love of his music and of the rare, enduring relationship he shared with Nellie, whom he met as a child growing up in the Manhattan neighborhood of San Juan Hill. Nellie was there when Monk found his musical voice; she was there when he found himself unemployed; she was there during the final 10 years when he retreated from performance; and she was there when he died, in her arms.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee@globe.com.

THELONIOUS MONK: The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D.G. Kelley
Free Press, 588 pp., illustrated, $30

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