Robin D.G. Kelley is the author of “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” and professor of American Studies at USC College.
What was it about Thelonious Monk that initially drew you to this project?
I’ve been fascinated with Monk’s music since I was a teenager. As a young (self-taught) piano player, I discovered Monk by way of pianist Cecil Taylor, whom I adored. From that point on I spent years trying to learn Monk’s music. I’m still learning now. But besides Monk’s work as a pianist and composer, I found the stories about his quirkiness and eccentricities quite curious. They seemed to stand in for any serious critical engagement with his music, and in many ways stories about Monk (some apocryphal) had come to define him, to the point where the alleged “weirdness” of his music was conflated with the “weirdness” of the man. I wanted to penetrate this veneer and figure out who the real Monk was, as a man, a husband, a father, a friend, an intellectual, an artist, etc.
Despite previous biographies and a documentary film, Monk still appeared to many to be an extremely obscure and mysterious figure. You had unprecedented access to Thelonious’s family and friends, as well as many home and personal recordings. Was it difficult to separate Monk’s public persona from his private one? How much of the public myth surrounding him was self-reinforced?
Access to the Monk family materials and, more importantly, to Monk’s family and closest friends was essential for discovering who Thelonious was as a person, his demons and charms, and what he was up against. After years of digging, three things became very clear: first, that the media (going back to about 1947) essentially created and kept alive the public image of Monk we’ve inherited; second, that Monk himself had a bit of an investment to maintain the image of him as eccentric or “crazy” as a strategy to protect his own identity and privacy; third, that the range of behaviors Monk exhibited cannot to attributed to any one factor, and what is often called “eccentric” is often misunderstood. His actions, as I make clear in the book, have to be understood in context; each moment is situational. Some actions were, indeed, manifestations of his bipolar disorder, and these occurrences were episodic, not representative of his day-to-day behavior. Some actions exhibited his sense of humor, it was calculated to get a laugh, or in some cases stagecraft. He knew how to entertain and when he was in the mood he would do so. Some things were cultural, such as dancing to his music. The entire world dances, both sacred and secular expressions, yet when Monk dances it is supposed to be “eccentric.” When he traveled with a faith healer as a teenager, he saw movements much like the one’s he did on stage. He also danced as a way of demonstrating rhythm, accents, and tempo—most of his sidemen have said this. Finally, some actions were acts of resistance to exploitative club owners, promoters, etc. I cite many examples where he would show up late or play very little when he thought he was being underpaid and overworked. And of course, like many human beings, he could be late if he did not think it would do any harm. In some cases, he took advantage of his friendships with others (e.g., the Termini brothers who owned the Five Spot).
But what we ought to pay attention to are all the times when his behavior was “normal,” when he played the gig and did his best, bowed to the audience, did interviews, took his kids shopping, loved his wife, sat down and composed, etc. etc. The fact that the reader is overwhelmed with a grueling itinerary that demonstrates that he played most gigs without incident is telling and ought to do more to define Monk than the stories of weirdness which are often more entertaining.
Monk is often unfairly lumped in with the innovators of be-bop. Your book does a great job of parsing out Monk’s deeper influences and interests. For me, the meeting of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane could only have happened within the context of Monk’s music. What is it about his compositions that makes them so uniquely eccentric yet also instantly appealing to jazz musicians of disparate generations?
As composer, no one was writing melodic lines like Monk. He often broke with the standard 16 and 32 bar song form and created a new metric and harmonic architecture for his music: “Introspection,” for example, has 36 bars and a wandering harmonic movement chock full of whole tone harmony, which very few jazz composers were building on in those days. Or take a song like “Brilliant Corners,” with its bizarre seven bar bridge, shifting tempos, melody with huge intervallic leaps. Or “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” a simple, swinging melody written in 20 bars. And of course, there is no song like “’Round Midnight,” with its insistent descending chromatic harmony, that haunting, startling melody, the sheer beauty derived from a minor tonality and rich dissonance. He also wrote many difficult songs, twisting, swift melodies that gave even the best musicians a run for their money: “ Gallop’s Gallop,” “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Work,” “Skippy.” These tunes proved so difficult, in fact, that they were often recorded once or twice and then dropped entirely.
Yet for all of Monk’s modernism, there was something very old fashioned about his playing. He comes out of stride piano, his musical fathers being James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, etc., and he appropriated many of the “tricks” these great pianists had up their sleeves—the ability to bend notes, suspend time, turn the beat around deliberately, among other things. I think Monk simply exaggerated some of these old tricks and rather than smooth out the jagged edges, like an Art Tatum, he lived in the jagged regions of the piano.
Finally, a word about bebop. True, Monk was decidedly not a part of the “bebop” school, per se, but I do think he made an enormous contribution to the music that was ultimately bounded by this category. Monk’s contribution to harmonic developments were essential, even if he used his harmonic knowledge quite differently. He taught his peers a lot about harmony, which they ended up using. But unlike the beboppers, Monk was interested in slower tempos; in fusing older jazz ideas of improvising on the melody rather than chords; creating new architecture rather than run alternate changes over tin pan alley song form; interested more in making unique melodic statements than demonstrating virtuosity.
Thelonious strikes me as a very generous person. Musically, he gave his collaborators lots of room to grow and expand in his music. He significantly contributed to the growth of both John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, though everyone seemed to benefit from playing with Monk. Did he see himself as a shepherd of his fellow musicians?
Perhaps less shepherd (for that implies that he has followers or a herd to care for an influence) and more teacher. He was not interested in musicians sounding like him or joining his school. Rather, he wanted to help all the musicians around him become better and find their own voice. This seemed to be the common theme of his teaching.
What role did Charlie Rouse play in stabilizing Monk’s music during his downward swing of mental and physical health? Rouse, to my ears, is one of Monk’s most sympathetic partners yet his contributions to the music feel undervalued. Do you think his decade long stint supporting Monk negatively affected his own career?
Rouse was essential from the very beginning of their collaboration. He not only built his sound and his approach to improvisation to suit Monk (building on the theme/melody of a song to structure his solos, for example), but he became the band’s unofficial music director. He made sure other band members understood what was happening, especially when Monk wasn’t talking much. He also subordinated his own ambitions—though Rouse made a few LPs as a leader during his tenure with Monk, he never had a chance to play his own compositions as a member of Monk’s band. He considered leaving several times before he finally cut out in 1970, but I think he realized he would not do much better. Sadly, Rouse ended up taking a lot of the heat when the critics turned on Thelonious in the mid to late 1960s.
What are some of your favorite Monk recordings? Do you prefer him live or in studio? Who do you feel are some of his greatest collaborators?
This is an impossible question to answer. I see all of his compositions as a complete body of work, each one having its own function and history and purpose. As a player, I love exploring “Brilliant Corners,” “Introspection,” as well as tunes like “Played Twice” and his only composed waltz, “Ugly Beauty.” These are all very different tunes, yet each tells a story. I can hardly keep back tears when I hear “Crepuscule with Nellie” because to me it is his most personal song.
Live/studio—all depends. He’s made so many great live recordings, like “Live at the It Club” and, of course, the lost tapes from Carnegie Hall, 1957 with Coltrane. I adore his Five Spot recordings with Johnny Griffin—my introduction to Monk. He has made so many great studio recordings as well, beginning with the Blue Note sides from 1947 – 1951; his gorgeous reading of “Reflections” and “More than You Know” with Sonny Rollins. For that matter, ALL of his recording with Rollins are just outstanding, even the early Prestige records. Finally, like so many I’m partial to his solo piano pieces. They are all great, even the very final recordings he made in London in 1971, in which he proves that health issues had not affected his ability to play. Finally, there are some recordings we’ve been sleeping on: his version of Ellington’s “I Didn’t Know About You” with Rouse on tenor (from Straight, No Chaser), or his hilarious trio version of “I’ll Follow You” from the Blue Note
years. I could go on.