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Thread: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

  1. #1

    Default Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley (2009, Free Press) was a Christmas gift from one of my sons.

    I have read about two-thirds of it thus far (the book is 451 pages plus appendices), so perhaps my review is premature. I will be sure to follow up with a complete review after I've completed the book. I am so fond of it already that I wanted to share my initial impressions.

    It is exceptionally well researched. The author, an academic at USC, certainly did his homework well. He interviews those closest to Monk and carefully and fully documents all of his sources.

    It is very well written. The author writes with clarity and precision. While he covers a great deal of territory, I am always clear where he is in his narrative and who the key players are.

    It is truly fascinating. I thought I knew quite a bit about Monk, but much of what I thought I knew turns out to be recylced anecdotes and misimpressions about the "mad genious." Much of the misinformation about Monk can be attributed to early press releases that emphasized some of Monk's eccentricities rather than his music. It is certainly true that Monk was unconventional in many respects, but tales about his being terribly unreliable and crazy are overblown.

    Have others read this yet? If so, what are your impressions?

    Again, I will report back with a complete and detailed review after I've completed the book. For now, I am confident in recommending this to any jazz fan.

    Best,
    Tim Wolfe

  2. #2
    Forum Contributor 2012 Joe Giardullo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    Thanks for the review. I heard an interview with the author and found it and his point of view in writing the book just fascinating.

    On my way out to get the book now!

    Aside: One of my gifts was TO BE OR NOT TO BOP, the Dizzy book, and in it Monk gets fired from DG's big band for just not showing up to rehearsals and gigs.
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    markpoirier's Avatar
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    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    The firing incident is covered in the Monk bio. He was habitually late, and on that night had been drinking with Kenny Clarke while they were both supposed to be on the bandstand.

    I'm not as deep into the book as Tim, but enjoying it immensely.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    It is true that Monk was, at times, late and unreliable (as Mark rightly points out this is covered in the bio). His struggles to find and keep gigs were clearly related to his reputation--real or perceived--as undependable.

    However, author Robin Kelley points out that there were many times when Monk was quite professional and reliable (e.g., when he worked with Coleman Hawkins and when Monk led some of his own groups). Part of Monk's erratic behavior was due to his mental health problems--bipolar disorder--that went undiagnosed and untreated for so long.

    It should be noted that while Monk was "odd" and could be unreliable, there was another side to him. He was a dedicated family man, a thoughtful and generous soul to those closest to him, a deeply intelligent man, a brutally honest person, and an amazingly resilient artist who hung in there when many others who struggled to make ends meet--as he did for so long--would surely have given up.

    What I like most about Kelley's book is the even-handed treatment he gives to Monk's life and legacy. Most of what I had read before tended to portray Monk in unflattering terms.

    Anyway, I am glad others are reading the book or planning to get it. I'd love to hear more of what you guys/gals think.

    Best,
    Tim

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    Forum Contributor 2010 DukeCity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim Wolfe View Post
    ...author Robin Kelley points out that there were many times when Monk was quite professional and reliable (e.g., when he worked with Coleman Hawkins and when Monk led some of his own groups). Part of Monk's erratic behavior was due to his mental health problems--bipolar disorder--that went undiagnosed and untreated for so long.
    I have this book, but haven't started it yet. There was much discussion on another board that I visit about this book, and the subject of Monk's mental health.

    Was the diagnosis of bipolar disorder ever made during Monk's lifetime, or is this merely postmortem conjecture?

  6. #6

    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe Giardullo View Post
    Thanks for the review. I heard an interview with the author and found it and his point of view in writing the book just fascinating.
    I might have read this interview too, your description sounds familiar.

    I should grab the book sometime soon.

  7. #7

    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    DukeCity,

    According to the author, Monk was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his lifetime--albeit rather late in his life. Had he been diagnosed and treated earlier, it seems likely that Monk and his family would have been spared a lot of heartache.

    The author also notes that Monk's father, Thelonious Sr., was committed to a mental asylum in North Carolina late in his life.

    It is interesting that some people think Monk's genius may have been related to his mental disorder. I am no expert, at all, on mental disorders so I have no way to know if there is a causal link between manic-depression or bipolar d/o and artistic achievement. I think we have all probably heard people make such a claim, though.

    Best,
    Tim

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    Distinguished SOTW Member saxagenarian's Avatar
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    Default Re: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    One of the best biographies around!

    Reading it, and listening to Monk's music in the order it was written, has given me a great deal of pleasure - and maybe even some understanding I otherwise wouldn't have acquired.

    It definitely has this geezer's seal of approval! My copy will go the local University library.
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