The story of Thelonious Monk is a story of contradictions. A musical revolutionary who lived long enough to be considered old-fashioned. A man with a reputation for erratic behavior who was also a devoted husband and father. A piano player who’s seemingly primitive technique belied his true mastery of the instrument. A writer of songs that are often deceptively complex or else deceptively simple. Forever holding these contradictions in an uneasy balance was Monk himself, and his story is ultimately about his own persistence.
Robin Kelley’s definitive biography of Monk, a massive, incredibly researched labor of love, does a lot to puncture the mythology surrounding Monk’s life and work. In addition to Monk’s own internal contradictions, we see how his image and mythology conflicts with the reality of the man. Often described as lacking in formal musical training, he actually had a thorough and sophisticated musical education. Notorious for being unreliable and late to gigs, he was often very professional and hard-working. Mythologized as The High Priest of Bebop, he left that music’s scorching tempos behind in favor of his own medium tempo explorations. Monk’s music ultimately doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Contributing greatly to Monk’s difficulties was his mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, which was poorly understood and treated. People are fascinated by mental illness in artists, while tending not to give a damn about it in the general population. Certainly it is hard to separate Monk’s illness from his personality. However it is hard to argue that mental illness helped Monk’s music career. In fact, it severely hampered his ability to produce music, to maintain his grueling performance schedule, and handle his business.
The book also exposes the conflict between the artistic expectations of critics and the public, and the reality of life as a working musician. Sometimes appallingly misunderstood by critics early in his career, portrayed as atonal, unskilled, and inscrutable, ignored by the public, Monk lived long enough to be derided as predictable and nostalgic by the same critics, even as the public adored him. Later in his life, the jazz press wondered why he didn’t write more new songs, why he still played the same tunes all the time. But where was the time to compose or rehearse a band when Monk was the sole breadwinner for his family, constantly touring, hampered by physical and mental illness? In fact, even though Monk achieved every musician’s dream, traveling the world, making records, being recognized for his genius, he always struggled financially. Monk didn’t make a steady living until his forties, and never made enough to be truly secure.
Ultimately Monk never solved these contradictions, instead holding them in an uneasy balance seemingly through sheer force of will. The true unity that emerges from this story is that of Monk’s music itself. One thing everyone who played with Monk agreed on was that he was a great teacher, and that the lesson came not so much from what he said as from simply playing his music. Through these songs one becomes immersed in Monk’s unique concept. What seems strange and unpredictable suddenly reveals it’s irresistible internal logic. What initially sounds harsh and forbidding gradually opens to show an intense beauty within. Monk’s compositions are incredibly diverse, but they all sound unmistakably like their creator. In the end, it was Monk himself who held it all together.