Sphere of Influence

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D. G. Kelley
Free Press

For his entire professional life, Thelonious Sphere Monk was almost universally thought to be weird beyond comprehension, musically (up to the late ‘50s) and personally (all of his life.) He was thought to occupy a dimension of his own, to possess a mind that was impenetrable by anyone who thought sequentially, to float above the world of humankind, to be incapable of rational discourse, to be eccentric, quirky, unreliable, nuts.

This was not the opinion of jazz musicians who worked with him, who testified to his broad learning, perspicacity, and generous wisdom. Now, with Robin D. G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, there is documentation of, not only his sanity, but of the hard, committed life of a musician of genius and a dedicated family man. This book is a masterpiece of sound and detailed scholarship and loving analysis. Even in the opening chapters, which treat Thelonious’ ancestry, where the oral history is thin and the documentation is scant, Kelley draws such interesting period settings that we are illuminated by the social environment that the post-reconstruction and early twentieth century Monks must have endured.

The years when Thelonious lived in the San Juan Hill area of Manhattan, the district roughly around where Lincoln Center now stands, bring such a wealth of new information, primarily from interviews, that I wonder why the authors of the previous biographies of Monk even bothered to write them. Thelonious’ education, his early piano training, his social and family life, are fully drawn in fascinating detail. His professional career began with a tour with an evangelical preacher and healer which afforded Thelonious an opportunity to work steadily with other musicians and jam with the local aces at the tour cities. Mary Lou Williams, who was in Kansas City in the late ‘thirties when Monk came through, testified that his style, with his augmented and dissonant chords and unique timing, was already in place.

Though Thelonious enjoyed the esteem of his prebop peers, the enduring frustration of his attempts to build a stable career is a sad theme of the first half of Kelley’s book. He met such contempt, dismissal, rudeness and betrayal that it seemed that he would never earn enough to leave his parents’ home. Even in 1941, when he landed the job as house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and established himself at the center of the emerging bebop movement, the wages were as much in food and drink as in cash. But those were rich years; the dynamics of the relationships among the musicians are intimately told. It was not the compact, immediate revolution that most jazz fans have read of: Monk, with the seminal drummer, Kenny Clarke, and the very good trumpeter and singer, Joe Guy, played mostly with swing musicians in the early years. The scene, and the music, gradually evolved during the next several years. Thelonious’ importance as the primary theorist of the movement is documented as is his pedagogy at Minton’s and at his home. There are wonderfully revelatory anecdotes of this period as there are throughout this book. For example, Monk offered to name a tune for a friend whom he accompanied on a gig, a singer who happened to be gay, and the friend replied, “Well, you needn’t.”

Though his reputation grew among his hipper peers, including the more open minded of the earlier generation musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, several classes of the jazz nation generally misunderstood the man and his music. These included critics, club owners and bandleaders, a brutal axis to overcome. To win them, Monk would have to compromise, become someone else, which he would not do, and we are grateful to him for that. Thelonious desperately wanted steady work, recognition and a hit record. None were forthcoming, even in the late ‘forties when Al Lion and Frank Wolff issued those wonderful Blue Note recordings; they could get no traction, and some still prominent critics need to apologize posthumously to Monk for panning this work.

There were other advocates, most notably a growing cadre of intellectuals, devoted to the new music, who were emerging from college and knew genius when they heard it. Some produced undersubscribed concerts that featured Thelonious, some wrote spirited defenses of his music. The greatest of his sponsors, however, were members of his family and his close friends, who were generous with their material and emotional support.

Kelley describes the painful, petty arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana that cost Thelonious Monk his cabaret card and thus kept him off the scene in New York, except for a few concerts and underground club dates. This situation prevailed until 1957 when he finally regained his card and gained an extended stay at the Five Spot. The audience and critical establishment finally had caught up with him, and at forty he finally had the stature and income that he had earned long before. I was at the Five Spot for most of the nights of this gig; in a long autobiographical poem entitled The First Seventy, the longest and most intense section by far was my rendition of this scene, which suggests that this was the greatest experience of my life. I watched the band evolve from the original trio to the quartet of Shadow Wilson, the drummer, Wilbur Ware, the very underappreciated bassist, and John Coltrane. I watched Coltrane emerge into gianthood under Monk’s tutelage, and the quartet blossom from greatness to the sublime.

I will end this review there; Thelonious now was a major public figure whose face had been on the cover of Time magazine. I do not mean to suggest that the remainder of Monk’s life and times is any less rich. Kelley’s story of his relationships with other musicians continues to be fascinating and revealing as does the image of Thelonious the father, husband and friend. There is also his growing mental instability and the support of his patroness, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. It’s just that nothing in my life surpasses those nights of nursing a beer in the Five Spot as Monk danced his way through John Coltrane’s horn. You should have been there.

Here’s the Monk section (invoked above) of A.B. Spellman’s poem, “The First Seventy,” originally publised in “Things I Must Have Known,” Coffee House Press.

in ‘57 i moved to n.y. & caught monk’s return
from brutal exile to the 5 spot. trane joined him
on the stand with double stopping wilbur ware
no music has ever so joyously inured to itself
such explosively advancing revelation, note to
phrase, tune to set, night to ignited dawn. the ineffable
message those instruments sang to me – not the learning
we parse from text, but the meaning we feel lost & blind
for the lack of. hard & softly blown, full lives compressed
in the blazing moment of the horn
in such moments i understood the fear of art
its in the sudden departure to places i’d never heard of
when all i came for was a little froufrou
to tack onto the dim lit walls of my consciousness
i did not hear this music so much as it occupied me
pulled me up, eyes closed to the sonic light
brain thrown hard against the back of my skull
in the sharp upward acceleration at more gees
than i could handle. my suffering silent reason yelled
stop! this air fires blue hot! there’s danger in this flight
but instead my mouth gaped in the numinous yes
in the smoky dark, screamed yes monk yes trane yes yes yes

how it happened? imagine john coltrane starting the gig
enclosed in a crystal egg & thelonius dancing
the monk dance around him & trane stammering
his opening lines, a halting brilliance that did not flow
& monk dancing the invocation of swing dance
‘til the line coalesced with the geometric burn
the broken sword architecture of lightning
shattered the egg in a storm of jewels
& out stepped john, wailing, this godzilla
tenor player who took me out & out & out
for the next 10 years. i have heard gould play bach
seen cunningham & fonteyn dance; known
the primal strokes of van gogh & pollock; read
the verse of the masters & all, all have remade me
but no art has so blown my inner spaces clean
so propelled me thru the stages of being
as john coltrane live. i tried not to miss a note