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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 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. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest com­posers. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz’s most original composer.


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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 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. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest com­posers. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz’s most original composer.

30 review for Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

  1. 5 out of 5

    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 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 read, this book does not go into transcriptions of his music but rather speaks to up musical laymen about how he was inspired by Bartok and Schoenberg and other modern classic composers – this flies in the face of the urban myth concerning Monk’s art being solely inspired by african-american culture. It was nice to see Kelley debunk most of the myths about Monk: he was a very friendly, engaging person when he was not in a bipolar mood swing. He was not completely disconnected with the world around him. He had many close friends in the jazz world (and was deeply moved when they passed away – most notably Elmo Hope and Bud Powell). It is deplorable that his condition was never detected and that a quack doctor supplied him with damaging vitamin supplements that drove him down lower in his sickness. I was better able to appreciate the albums I love most: Underground, Straight No Chaser, Thelonious Alone in SF due to the description of his many sessions and concerts. It is also sad that he never really got his due and struggled most of his life for money – I learned much to my dismay that for one of his earliest and most often quoted songs – ‘Round Midnight – he only received 33% of the rights having been ripped off my the person that submitted the lead sheet for royalties. If you are a jazz fan and especially if you are a Monk fan, this is essential reading. Let me know how you like it. Still a classic!

  2. 5 out of 5

    HBalikov

    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 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 most thorough and in depth validation of his subject matter. You can read it for a cutural/sociological primer on NYC and musicians during the height of jazz's popularity. You can experience the fascinating, frustrating, and somewhat tragic arc of Monk's life. Or you can just learn more about the music. As I write this, I am listening to several cuts of the same song, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." In a way, Monk and Dylan, have the same ethic --- play the same song many times but never the same way twice. Each time is a new journey: something I really can enjoy. I have noted that others find this book ponderous at times. For me, not so. But, here is my secret. First, I bought it as an e-book. Second, I use the "search" function frequently. Am I curious about Misterioso? Plug it into search and I can find over a dozen separate sections that discuss some aspect. Am I interested in his mentor relationship with John Coltrane? Again, it is delightful to find those passages and read as much or as little as I find compelling. There is so much packed into this volume that brings pleasure that I have no need to read it from front to back. How about you?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Obviously if you are even a little bit of a Monk-head, you need to read this. My only criticisms would be that there were a few too many excuses or justifications for Monk's behavior when it would have been better to simply accept that, like most of us, he could be an asshole sometimes. I don't really know any of his jazz peers who wasn't. The other criticism is that it read at times as little more than a list of people he worked with and concerts he played at. Personally I would have preferred Obviously if you are even a little bit of a Monk-head, you need to read this. My only criticisms would be that there were a few too many excuses or justifications for Monk's behavior when it would have been better to simply accept that, like most of us, he could be an asshole sometimes. I don't really know any of his jazz peers who wasn't. The other criticism is that it read at times as little more than a list of people he worked with and concerts he played at. Personally I would have preferred a little more musical analysis etc, but that is just a matter of personal taste. Otherwise it does a fabulous job putting to rest the (racist) myths of Monk the "primitive" - he knew precisely what he was doing. It was just a shame his mental health and the crappy music business world meant he did not get as much a chance as he should have to get it down on record.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    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 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 maybe make too many concessions or gloss over Monk's mental lapses a bit too much in the book? I don't know, but he definitely uncovers a pretty rich logistics to a truly strange life. Musically, I feel like Kelley could have done a bit more to place Monk in contemporary contexts as time went on. Characters like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane float in and out of the story without much description about what kinds of things they had moved on to and how it compared to what Monk was doing -- in Monk's eyes, in the critics of the day, or even in Kelley's own opinion. We get to see it a bit with the friction between Monk and Ornette Coleman and Davis' later fusion period, but I feel like that could have been explored a bit more (although it pains me to suggest that Kelley should have done any more work on this book that he already has . . . ).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Craig Pittman

    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. 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. Here's Monk trying to choke critic Leonard Feather! Here's Monk nearly coming to blows with Miles Davis! Here's Monk getting beaten up by Delaware state troopers! This isn't just any old recitation of facts about his life, either. Kelley explains what went into Monk's 70 or so compositions, their radical, often dissonant chord voicings, their complex rhythms and odd accents, the elbow-bangs on the keyboard and the long silences. And he takes pains to dismiss all the publicity depicting Monk as some sort of primitive savant with no knowledge of music history, "a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him." Instead, Kelley shows that from the age of 11 to 13 he studied with a teacher who exposed him to the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt, and at 17, having just missed a scholarship to Juilliard, he went on the road accompanying an evangelist -- a formative event that led to a lifelong love of gospel music, if not any particular devotion to religious pursuits. Although Monk liked to play up his off-kilter view of the world, much of it turned out to be calculated, his style underlain by a wicked sense of humor. His penchant for dancing on the bandstand, considered odd by some audiences, was actually a sign he was digging what his band mates were doing. Kelley even explains Monk's sudden adoption of his trademark hats -- astrakhan, Japa­nese skullcap, Stetson, tam-o’-shanter -- by pointing out that when he started wearing them, he'd also started losing his hair. Monk could be loyal to a fault -- he took the rap for a drug bust that should've been pinned on Bud Powell, and as a result lost his cabaret card, crippling his ability to work in the New York clubs just when bebop was really taking off. He also relied heavily on a rich patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka Nica, who hooked him up with a society doctor who probably did Monk's bipolar disorder far more harm than good. The trajectory of his latter years is a sad one, as he withdrew from the world and not only stopped composing but also stopped even playing the piano (perhaps a side effect of the lithium being used then to treat his chemical imbalance). But there were plenty of triumphs preceding it, and today the world is far richer for his legacy. Kelley is not a great writer but he's a great researcher, and I came away from his bio with a far greater knowledge and appreciation of what Monk went through to give us such classics as "Blue Monk" and "Round Midnight" and "Crepuscule with Nellie." I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in music of any kind -- not just jazz.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Phillip

    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 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 popular belief that his style was the result of an unschooled, sheltered musical consciousness.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul Secor

    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. 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    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 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 time, was caught within it. Monk's life is like a catalog of race related set backs. He is arrested 3 times and serves jail time for two in circumstances would hardly beset a white counterpart. In one case the arrest, spurred by suspicion of two black men and a while woman in a Bentley, included a beating and an illegal search. In another Monk served time and lost his cabaret performance license for 6 years for not ratting on a friend. Getting back and keeping this license (his livelihood) is Sisyphusian. Monk's apartment had two electrical fires and its front steps disappeared in a sink hole. How often does this happen to a white counterpart? Throughout his life friends and relatives die young, mostly given up to drugs. Even Monk's 4F draft status relates to his race. Besides Monk's personal brush with racism and its by products, big national events hover over his past and present. He is two generations from slavery and a product of the northern migration. In his adult years he sees the death of Emmett Till, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the anti-colonial uprisings in Africa, Martin Luther King and the backlash, the ghetto riots... all this swirls around Monk and his music. I played some of the music as it was discussed in the book as a backdrop while I was reading. It gave a lot of dimension and helped me to re-envision the time and place of the music's creation. The world seemed to be aflame in change. Kelley easily debunks the myths that Monk couldn't read music and had no classical background. He not only reads music, he writes it. His mother sacrificed to get him a piano and private lessons. Interestingly, when institutionalized, after staring at a piano, he bursts into Rachmaninoff. Monk finally received recognition for his work but never the fortune that today's artistic celebrities enjoy. His creations are the result of his determination, his mother's guidance to "be yourself" and the support he received from his deepest supporters. Barbara Monk (mother), Nellie Monk (wife), Nica (the Barroness patron) and the Colomby brothers (agents) all deserve recognition for their role in helping Monk create and deliver his music. Monk, who gave them love also took a toll on each of them. I presume his mental problems were more trying than presented here. Only a few episodes of violence are mentioned, but something clearly triggered the cop on the NY accident scene to take Monk to a mental institution. What appears as benign eccentricity to fans (tardiness, argumentativeness, wandering, walking off the stage) had consequences for his family and supporters. The book begins with a mention of a Julliard graduate Julius Withers Monk, a descendant of the family that owned Thelonious' grandfather. I would like to see families such as these chronologically paralleled. This pairing is particularly intriguing. Kelley notes that their names appear together (both have classical given names) alphabetically in the Local 802 musician's directory. They were clearly aware of each other, did they meet? This is an important work. Kelley strikes a good balance in the difficult work of documenting a life and still making the work enjoyable. While this is something like a reference book it is still readable. I highly recommend this to all who have an interest in the foundations of jazz.

  9. 4 out of 5

    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, 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, it never happened. I think Robin Kelley got Stockholm Syndrome and fell into the world of Monk so completely that he became an apologist instead of a biographer and the book became a hagiography. Kelley's serviceable prose rises to a sort of two-dimensional poesie when rhapsodizing about Monk's music, but it's never better than average. Not recommended. Not at all. Want to know about Monk? Listen to "Ruby, My Dear." It'll teach you what you *really* need to know.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tyra Sherese

    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! 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!

  11. 5 out of 5

    bartosz

    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 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 master's thesis on Monk's music. The technical details of his playing are mostly relegated to an one-and-a-half page appendix, and you won't see a musical note anywhere throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that the author is a musician (thinking that one would have an urge to get into the meat and bones of Monk's playing). Yet, what the book lacks in musical details it makes up with Monk's philosophy. The book is strewn with advice that Thelonious gave to his fellow musicians, his views on playing and comments about new emerging styles. Thelonious disliked both free jazz as well as rock and roll. I wish more was said about what Monk thought about modal jazz (though his comments about jazz-fusion and that playing over one chord is "bullshit" might apply). The author of the book is a historian and it shows. The book is almost overwhelming in its detail, allowing one to do full bookkeeping records of Monk's income and answer important questions like "Which studio charged Thelonious for the sandwiches he ate on set". I cannot imagine how much work it cost the author to so painstakingly source and index everything. Thelonious Monk the Life and Times[...] stands proudly on the impressive historical work alone! The second part of the subtitle "... and Time of an American Original" is not a joke - Robin D. G. Kelley not only provides information about Monk but also everything that influenced him and everything that he, in turn, influenced. From the history of Monk's grandparents; to the historical detail of New York's neighborhoods, clubs and coffee joints; recording studios; schools that Monk or Monk's children attended to - nothing is easier than to get lost in the detail! Yet, the work that the author put in to flesh out the world helps forming a better picture of Monk's life as well as adding an emotional and intellectual attachment to the events and descriptions. I was surprised to learn about the origin of bebop described in the book, having always assumed that bebop came solely from both Bird and Dizzy Gillespie. The interactions between other famous musicians and Monk were also a pleasant surprise for me. I had no idea that the jazz world was so tightly knit. It's easy to dismiss the mentally ill, and brush off each aspect of their character as a facet of their distress but Kelley manages to paint a picture of a complicated man with a wry sense of humor and non-conforming personality. Troubled by both his illness and financial problems, yet not defined by his obstacles. Monk led a full life with strong ties to both his family and community. There's a love story in the mids of the book between Thelonious and his wife, Nellie, and one cannot wonder at how much she loved him and took care of him. I disliked two things about the book. I've felt that the author tries to whitewash Monk's behavior and treats his subject with a different standard than other people, eschewing from neutrality I'd expect from a historian. This lack of neutrality also applies to my second point in how the author presents race relations throughout the book. I understand that not writing about race relationships would be an important historical omission, yet sometimes the author projects too much of his own feelings and views and uses too little evidence for my taste ("... must have known ...", "... must have been aware ...", "Even if the designers sought to deliberately play on representations of Monk as 'child-like' [...] Thelonious was too cool, too masculine and too angry to convey anything but black manhood.") These small annoyances notwithstanding, Thelonious Monk the Life and Times[...] is a labor of love. A must have for jazz fans, I can only imagine one (futuristic) way for it to be better - adding interactive music clips and historical reels! And more photos strewn out within!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Happyreader

    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 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 session, every bad drug or drinking experience is recalled in detail. The evolution of every Monk composition seems to be recounted. Yet for all the recalled conversations, all the extensive family history, Monk never seems to come fully alive in this book. You feel like you only catch glimpses of the man himself. This could be due to Monk’s personality, to the fact that most of the sources are talking about him, their impression of him and little of the sourcing are his own words, or to the fact that so much ground is covered that your attention is scattered. From stories about his friendships with many of his fellow musicians, such as his heartbreaking friendship with Bud Powell or his strong devotion to Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington, and recollections of his devotion to his wife and kids, you get the sense that this is a deeply passionate and heartfelt man and yet . . . . At the end of the day, a well-written and well-documented biography worth reading if you’re interested in all things Monk.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dan Petegorsky

    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 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 don’t wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who’s not a pretty serious jazz fan, since so much of it, duh, traces Monk’s career, and so is filled with the details of where, when and what he played and who he played it with. But for those of you in that category: the best way to enjoy this one is to have your collection at your fingertips, and a connection to Rhapsody close by for the titles you don’t own (not to mention YouTube, where you can also find clips from a surprising number of performances). Kelley’s observations on the music itself are insightful and also very intelligible. Unlike, say, the technical sections of Lewis Porter’s monumental Coltrane biography, you don’t need to be a trained musician to appreciate them. Though Monk’s story ends so sadly and while it’s hard to read about just how difficult things were throughout so much of his life and career, Kelley equally elicits wonderful examples of Monk’s wit and humor. My favorite may be when he and Miles are arguing about Monk’s difficult way of accompanying band members’ solos. At one point Monk does lay out during a Miles solo, but, as Kelley describes the scene: "In an act of playful comeuppance, Monk left the piano, snuck up behind Miles during his solo, reached into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, and dug into his jacket pocket for matches. After he lit up, he put everything back into Davis' pockets." Priceless.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    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 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 diagnosis, of course, but it's an interesting question to consider. As a biography, moreover, the book naturally focuses on Monk's life, and spends less time on the music; let me hasten to say that the music is, of course, an essential part of his life, so Kelley doesn't ignore the music. What I mean is that if one is looking for musicology, or close analyses of dates (with discussions of collaborators, etc), this book will not fully satisfy. Aside from these two concerns, it's a must-read for anyone interested in Monk or classic jazz.

  15. 5 out of 5

    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 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 with Nellie Monk (Thelonious' wife) before she passed away. He is a the perfect representative for Monk: kindly defensive yet also boldly honest about his life. Anyone who considers themselves a jazz musician should read this book, as Thelonious Monk is one of the great originators of modern music. Important in that it clears up many of the myths associated with his eccentricity and eventual mental illness and provides a multi-faceted representation of this complex, brilliant man. A touching, vibrant work; highly recommended.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Djll

    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 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    T.R. Hummer

    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 ( 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 (many of which are so poorly written as to be virtually unreadable, and many of which are poorly or spottily researched). If I have a complaint, it is that Kelley is perhaps TOO careful, too circumspect, in his desire to be as objective (and yet sympathetic) as possible. This is a strength of the book, but it is also a very tiny drawback, for this reader: but indeed the fault may lie in me and not in the book, because so fascinating and marvelous do I find Monk that I want to be inside his head completely. And that is of course impossible. If you are a fan of jazz, or merely curious about it, this book is a must-read; and if you love Monk, it is not only a necessity, it is a supreme pleasure.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marvin

    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.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tuck

    everything you wanted to know about monk, and more. nice list of original compositions of monk's, and a selected discography too. everything you wanted to know about monk, and more. nice list of original compositions of monk's, and a selected discography too.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    A beautifully written biography of a beautiful man. I fell in love with Monk all over again.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Darryl

    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 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 world of jazz. Robin Kelley, a professor of History and American Studies at USC, spent 14 years researching and writing this biography, which includes 100 pages of footnotes from hundreds of colleagues and members of Monk's family. Although the book has an extensive amount of detail, this reader did not get bogged down in it, as Kelley did a masterful job in portraying Monk's complicated and tormented life. Thelonious, whose name represents the Latinized spelling of St. Tillo, a former slave who became a renowned 7th century Benedictine monk in France, was named after his father, who bestowed his love for music to his son, along with his mother Barbara, who took her children to New York City to escape the crushing poverty of the Jim Crow South. Thelonious Sr. was plagued by mental illness throughout his adult life; his son also suffered from what was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar, or manic depressive, disorder. However, this diagnosis did not come until late in his life, and he was institutionalized and jailed multiple times when he was in the throes of a manic episode, and received medical treatments that exacerbated his symptoms. His illness contributed to his reputation as being weird and unpredictable, but it may have also led to his creative genius, as his compositions were innovative and complex. His music was widely misunderstood, as many of the leading jazz artists had a difficult time playing alongside him, and critics often described his music as primitive and abstract. However, he had extensive musical training, considering the limitations he faced as a poor black male in mid-20th century America, as he received piano lessons from noted jazz and classical teachers, and played piano in his mother's church and for a traveling evangelist as an adolescent. He initially performed in jazz clubs, most notably Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, but he was barely able to make ends meet despite his growing popularity. Monk, like many jazz musicians of that time, was plagued by unscrupulous club owners who paid him poorly, fellow musicians who claimed his music as their own and stole royalties from him, and record producers who did not utilize his talents fully and underpaid him routinely. His break finally came during an extended gig at the Five Spot Café in the East Village in 1957, with a group that featured John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. He achieved a moderate amount of success over the next few years, with sold out concerts in the US, Europe and Japan, although he was paid far less than Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or other notable jazz artists. The music scene changed in the mid-1960s, due to the influence of rock music, and his stature and popularity waned as he refused to adopt to the new trends and as his illness prevented him from writing new material. His last years were spent in seclusion, with the aid of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known to her friends as Nica, an artist, jazz aficionado and estranged member of a wealthy Austrian family, who befriended and supported Monk throughout much of his adult life. However, the true stars of this amazing biography are Monk’s mother Barbara and his wife Nellie; without these strong and determined women, Thelonious would probably have never been heard outside of Harlem. Barbara Monk allowed her son to set his own path, and supported him financially in his early years. Nellie was everything to her husband: devoted wife and mother to their two talented children, personal assistant, manager, cheerleader, and caretaker, despite her own poor health. He recognized her love for him, and he stayed true to her throughout his life. The book is richly infused with the essential nature of their relationship, and the love that Monk had for his children and dear friends. This is one of the best biographies I have read, and it will stand as the definitive story of the incredible life of Thelonious Monk. Kelley’s labor of love cuts through the myths and mistruths of this complicated man, and Monk is effectively portrayed as both a larger than life public figure and as a sensitive, loving and troubled human being.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    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 without 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 mysel 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 without 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 drawn to the parts of the story that brought the people and local institutions that nourished Monk's musical creativity into vivid clarity. Very early on, Monk demonstrate a keen interest and talent in music, especially the piano. Growing up in Harlem during the early part of the twentieth century, his budding talents were nurtured thanks in part to his participation in an after school boys and girls club. At this youth center, Thelonious was able to take musical instruction and practice his piano playing skills. His mother, raising three children by herself, also provided a pivotal role in the young musician's life -- finding ways to provide him with piano and lessons to hone his creativity. Later on, as an adult, his wife Nellie provided a solid foundation of love and support -- emotional, financial and business. To highlight the people who supported Monk's musicality is not to detract from his genius. He did possess a natural talent that was nourished and ultimately bloomed. Kelley makes clear that for many years Monk did not receive the accolades he richly deserved. His style of discordant playing formed the basis of what would become BeBop, popularized by two other jazz greats -- Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The book also provides rich detail of the highs and lows that constituted the contours of Monk's life away from the piano. Kelley's book is a tribute to the Monk's humanity. Even as a budding jazz musician, he took an active role in caring for his children. He took seriously his role as their father, nurturing their well-being while Nellie worked outside the home to provide financial support for the family. He pursued his profound sense of social justice by supporting civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) among others. He courageously struggled with manic-depression, made even more acute due to alcohol and drug usage. Reading Kelley's book deepened my appreciation for Monk and his contributions to modern jazz. Highly recommended for those interested in the history of jazz and the development of a true American original.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Donna Lewis

    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 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 every jazz musician from the 40s through the 70s. The sad parts include the terrible scourge that heroin had on jazz musicians in that time period, leading to the early deaths of so many. Also detailed is the horrendous medical treatments available for not only addictions, but also mental illnesses. Unfortunately Monk never realized much financial success, due to unscrupulous promoters and record companies. This was (and still is) the case for many performers. Many jazz musicians did not receive adequate compensation for their work. Yet, there were many people that respected Monk and did everything they could to protect and nurture Monk. HIs music is highly respected, and his legacy as one the greatest pioneers of jazz is still strong. He is one of my favorite jazz musicians, and I loved this book!

  24. 5 out of 5

    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 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 disappearing for hours or days. The great man was clearly mentally ill, "chemically imbalanced", and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and he deserves sympathy and compassion. But I conclude that virtually every "unfair" impression we may have of him is TRUE. Kelley didn't seem to track down anyone who would say anything that could be seen as derogatory of his sacrosanct subject. No musicians or family who were willing to say Monk was distant, unhelpful, cruel, absentee, doped up? Ever? Not once?

  25. 4 out of 5

    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 mental illne 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 mental illness at the end of his life. I think my disappointment comes from the simple fact that in Kelley's quest to document virtually every moment of Monk's life, the book loses the energy & spontaneity that Monk himself embodied. Not sure if that is a fair criticism or not, but there it is.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Phil Overeem

    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. 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.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    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. 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.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Harold

    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. 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.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jake Adam

    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. 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.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Teresa

    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. 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.

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