The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk (2023)


ThroughDouglas Gorney

The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk (1)

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(Video) Timothy Leary Meets Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American OriginalthroughRobin D. G. Kelleyis the first biography that puts the unconventional music and the eccentric behavior of this jazz legend in a factual context. With unprecedented access to Monk's family and records, Kelley dispels many of the myths surrounding the eccentric pianist and the psychiatric, legal and professional challenges he faced before his death in 1982. Through it all, he faithfully recreates Monk's world, from Hardscrabble North Carolina's roots in the demanding and uncertain life of the working jazz musician. Kelley, who is on a sabbatical from the University of Southern California, spoke to me from Oxford University, where he is the Harmsworth Professor of American History.

You write about Thelonious Monk getting up from the piano and dancing around in circles on stage, falling asleep at the keyboard, wearing weird hats, staring into space and wandering out of nightclubs during gigs. From the eccentricity alone, I can see why it would make a good subject for a book. But what did you really want?

For me, Monk was an obsession - aesthetically and culturally - pretty much from the moment I was introduced to his music as a teenage wannabe jazz pianist. But when the subject of Thelonious Monk comes up, people talk about the eccentricities first, like you just did. Descriptions of his music are interspersed with descriptions of his behavior on and off stage. I wanted to unravel these things, understand who Thelonious Monk was as a person and who he was as an artist.

What did you find when you pulled them apart?

I won't lie to you - when I got into this project, I didn't know I would find what I ended up finding. I was amazed at the depth of Monk's musical education. I was surprised at how he suffered financially as an artist - even after becoming one of jazz's most recognizable faces and being on the covers of national magazines, he just wasn't making much money. I was amazed by his deep commitment to his family and community. It was the everyday things I found most intriguing, not the quirky, eccentric character we usually associate with Monk. As a result, I ended up writing a very different book than I thought I was going to write.

This was one of the most carefully researched biographies I have ever read. I feel like if I had asked you, "What did Monk have for lunch on August 12, 1958," you could have told me—

[laughs] Almost...

Did you think you would delve as deeply into Monk's world as you did? It took you 14 years to write this book.

Well, out of those 14 years, a good six were spent convincing the Monk family to let me have access to them. However, when Thelonious Monk Jr. let me in, I suddenly had unprecedented access — not just papers, but family members who had never spoken to anyone before. Nellie, Monk's wife, had never given interviews until I came.

(Video) Thelonious Monk's 25 Tips for Musicians

After that, I wanted to approach this project as a historian—that is, the more you find out, the more you have to look up. Too many jazz musician biographies are written by critics, using liner notes from albums and articles and interviews in the jazz press, and then filling in the rest with their own comments.

To tell Monk's story and the story of the people who shaped his world, I've uncovered some of the most obscure figures, people in the jazz world we know nothing about today. And I found that so much of what we think we know about Monk's life is just plain wrong. It was so hard to figure out the most basic things - in fact I still find errors in the book that I correct for the paperback.

What else has jazz history done wrong? How do you think the real monk was different from the image we have of him?

Jazz musicians always have questions and assumptions about drug use—especially in Monk's case, because he was... weird. So strange that the question of mental illness always comes to the fore when we think of him. But having access to medical records and his family gave me a sense of a man suffering more from prescription drugs and poor diagnoses than illegal drugs and bipolar disorder. He received very poor medical treatment, counseling, and prescriptions for a very long time. I was shocked at the impact this had on its ability to function.

I was also impressed by the role of his wife Nellie. In Monk films we get an image of Nellie as a faithful helper - there is some truth to that, she was the person most responsible for keeping him together. But I really saw her as a fully realized person with her own goals and dreams, desires and frustrations, as someone who suffered quite a bit. One of the things my book tries to do is put the so-called male genius in the context of his understand how important his spouse, his partner, was in bringing about that genius.

Let's get back to the topic of diagnosis and treatment. First let me ask a question about Monk the musician. When people first hear Monk, people think, hey, this guy's missing the keys - he's playing the wrong notes.

Well, first of all, something else struck me: Monk's distinctive sound, his approach to the piano, was deliberate, very thoughtful. In fact, it was hard for Monk to play Monk. I was privy to the home recordings that Nellie and Nica [Monk's friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter] had taken of him practicing. One could hear on these rehearsal tapes how he methodically and laboriously developed these ideas. That blew my mind. He, too, developed his approach over time. If you listen to the very early 1941 Minton's Playhouse recordings of Monk, you can hear how he began to develop that particular note within a style that still closely resembles the swing language of Teddy Wilson, the pianist of Benny Goodman, matches.

But on those wrong notes, Monk's radical idea was not to add more notes to chords, but to take them away, creating a lot more dissonance. He often played two-note chords—like taking the third and fifth from a major seventh chord and just playing the root and the major seventh chords—and boom, there's Monk's sound. It's the right chord, but it makes it sound like a completely bizarre choice.

Let's talk more about its sound. It's not just his idiosyncratic chord clusters, timing and phrasing, but his touch. If his ideas are off the mainstream, the way he plays them has caught your eye too. Deliberately, with a heavy hand on the keyboard... like a thumb in the eye of the musical establishment. Does that make any sense?

(Video) Thelonious Monk Quartet, Copenhagen, Denmark April 17th, 1966 (colorized)

I know exactly what you're talking about. Monk had small hands and played flat-fingered like the mallets you use on vibraphone to compensate - a trick he devised to play like James P. Johnson and the other stride pianists he's known thought up. He had the same kind of percussive techniques you use on drums, an uncanny ability to play different dynamics with different fingers. Some fingers were heavy, as you say, and some were light. And he struck a note, held it, and then struck another note so that the open string made overtones.

All of these techniques - and there are more I could talk about - come from ceaseless practice. There is nothing "wrong" or naïve about Monk's game.

Where do you place Monk in the pantheon of jazz artists? His playing has this traditional jazz, stride technique, and yet he's part of the bebop movement -- in fact, as you point out, a lot of his ideas were pretty far ahead of what beboppers were doing. Songs like "Criss-Cross" are still challenging 60 years later.

Absolutely. I describe Monk as Janus-faced, looking both ways at the same time. He draws as much from his roots, the old traditions he's never left, as he does from really futuristic stuff, musical territory he trod first. He will always be associated with the founding of bebop, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I don't put him in the bebop school though - I put him in his own school. However, he has had an immeasurable influence on the key figures with whom he has worked and taught directly: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman... the list goes on.

How did Monk see himself in the development of jazz? They write about how he went from being a musical maverick to someone almost clumsy with music, laying down the new paths that Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were breaking.

He was pissed that other artists like Bird and Diz (Parker and Gillespie) were getting credit for bebop while Monk was being overshadowed by the movement. He also disliked the way the jazz avant-garde acknowledged the harmonic developments he had been working on and became a media darling.

But as far as Monk saw himself in what I call the tradition of sonic disruption, his stylistic criteria boiled down to this: Is it swing? Does it sound good to your ears? Does it have a melody? His greatest hero, Coleman Hawkins, said: "Music is out of date for me. There's nothing traditional or modern – music is music.” So was Monk. Critics wondered if he was a traditionalist or a bebopper or part of the avant-garde, but he wasn't playing the label game...unless he thought it might sell records.

Both personally and professionally, Monk faced countless challenges. Bipolar disorder, poor treatment, and what Nellie called "the bad years" when Monk lost his cabaret ticket and couldn't play nightclubs that served alcohol — which was pretty much it. And there were more, any of which could have pushed Monk out of his music career or even onto the streets. Still, he pressed on. It's like the myth of Sisyphus set to jazz.

Monk's troubles with his cabaret ticket made his case one of the most egregious in an inherently unjust system. As hard as it got for him, he was blessed to have a whole tribe of people to take care of him - not just Nellie, but his entire extended family and later the Baroness.

(Video) Thelonious Monk Documentary -- 4/10

You support your conclusion that Monk was manic-depressive very strongly. Does that contradict the consensus regarding his eccentric behavior?

There was really no consensus. Just a bunch of conflicting claims - autism, Tourette's, all sorts of things. The diagnoses in his medical records range from schizophrenia to what we know today as bipolar disorder. I try to be very careful when discussing how the medical profession understood his problems. The science of chemical imbalances was not well developed in Monk's lifetime.

What is far more important to Monk's story than his diagnoses or misdiagnosis is to me the story of pharmacology. Thelonious was given large doses of Thorazine by one group of doctors and another who gave him large doses of amphetamines under the guise of "vitamins". You can see how this may have set the conditions for some odd behavior.

Do you think Monk's career would have developed differently if he had been treated properly earlier, that he might have composed more or taken his music in new directions?

It is a very tricky and fascinating problem. As I said earlier, in the 1950's when his manic depressive episodes really became a problem, they didn't really understand manic depression as a disease or lithium as a treatment. But for discussion purposes, if he had been treated that way, I actually think his creative output would have been diminished. Lithium acts like a blanket over the brain in many people. When Monk was finally prescribed it later in life, it contributed to an unwillingness or desire to play.

On the other hand, he probably wouldn't have had as many of the very difficult episodes that contributed to his general malaise and fatigue over time. I think his lack of creative output since the mid-1960s, at least as a composer, has to do with the fatigue he felt from being on the go all the time, hardly getting any sleep, and generally not feeling very well. He suffered from an increasing number of health problems, some of which were related to taking Thorazine.

What does Monk's life and career say about the belief that radical, innovative creative vision comes with dysfunction or instability?

Kay Redfield Jamison has written several books on this very subject - specificallyTouched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The idea is that the ups and downs of manic depression provide the context to open the mind to new possibilities. I am sceptical. This meme doesn't appeal to the many sane, functioning people who were revolutionary artists and musicians. I also think it's a romantic notion: in Monk's case, the negative effects of the illness created barriers to being able to work. Monk was a very methodical, careful composer. He was not one who could ever take advantage of a manic episode.

Still, the music seems kind of crazy on first listen and his demeanor was eccentric - it's natural to wonder if there's something going on...

A lot of what I'm trying to question is this very issue: whether there's a connection between Monk's music and his eccentricities. Yes, Monk was known for his crazy hats, for getting up from the piano and dancing in the middle of a song, or sometimes wandering out of the club in the middle of a gig. Many critics, even those who were sympathetic to him, would say of course his music is a reflection of his demeanor. But what I found in the book was that Monk really was a hard-working family man putting two kids through a private school...and he was also a showman. When you watch the documentaryJust no pursuer, there's a scene at an airport where Monk twirls over and over again. I interviewed Michael Blackwood who shot this footage in 1968. He said Monk was well aware when the camera was on him - he was acting for the camera. He knew why people paid to see him at nightclubs. He played according to their expectations.

(Video) The Secrets of Monk's Chord Voicings...Revealed!


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