Thelonious Monk

Robin D.G. Kelley

It’s hard to imagine what life would have had in store for Thelonious Sphere Monk had he not become a musician. In his exhaustively researched 588-page bio of this unusual jazz pianist, USC professor (of history and American studies) Robin D.G. Kelley examines Monk’s life from its beginning in North Carolina in 1917 on through his mercurial career that ended in 1976, six years before he died in 1982. Monk’s very different approach to his instrument and just general quirkiness were played up in the beginning as part of a PR campaign in which he was described as “the high priest of bebop” in an effort to gain him public acceptance. Kelley ascribes Monk’s curious stage antics—most notably his shuffling around during his sidemen’s solos—and the darkness that enveloped him in his last years to his long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, aggravated in no small measure by his habit of downing whatever pills were on hand. True to the subtitle (The Life and Times of an American Original), Monk’s life and times are examined in detail: the recordings, the tours, the highs (winning the Down Beat International Critics Poll in 1958) and the lows (e.g., getting busted for drugs with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter—a family friend—two months later in Baltimore) and his last reclusive years at her house where he received daily visits from his wife, Nellie.