by Professor Robin D. G. Kelley (Author)
"The piano ain't got no wrong notes!"
So ranted Thelonious Sphere Monk, who proved his point every time he sat down at the keyboard. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of "bebop" and establishing Monk as one of America's greatest composers. Yet throughout much of his life, his musical contribution took a backseat to tales of his reputed behavior. Writers tended to obsess over Monk's hats or his proclivity to dance on stage. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors, he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or childlike. But these labels tell us little about the man or his music.
In the first book on Thelonious Monk based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, as well as on a decade of prodigious research, prize-winning historian Robin D. G. Kelley brings to light a startlingly different Thelonious Monk Ś witty, intelligent, generous, politically engaged, brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Indeed, Thelonious Monk is essentially a love story.
It is a story of familial love, beginning with Monk's enslaved ancestors from whom Thelonious inherited an appreciation for community, freedom, and black traditions of sacred and secular song. It is about a doting mother who scrubbed floors to pay for piano lessons and encouraged her son to follow his dream. It is the story of romance, from Monk's initial heartbreaks to his lifelong commitment to his muse, the extraordinary Nellie Monk. And it is about his unique friendship with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a scion of the famous Rothschild family whose relationship with Monk and other jazz musicians has long been the subject of speculation and rumor. Nellie, Nica, and various friends and family sustained Monk during the long periods of joblessness, bipolar episodes, incarceration, health crises, and other tragic and difficult moments.
Above all, Thelonious Monk is the gripping saga of an artist's struggle to "make it" without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz's most original composer.
"Robin Kelley's new biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a breath of fresh air among the biographies of our legendary jazz musicians. This book is thorough, detailed, and written with a true affinity for Monk's humaneness and creative musical output. It fills in the missing pieces about the growth of the jazz scene in New York through the forties, fifties, and sixties, detailing each step of Monk's development -- who passed through his bands, what gigs he played, and what happened on those scenes. It's an invaluable and close look at the center of the world's most important creative musical developments in those decades: New York City."
- Chick Corea
"Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is one of the most anticipated books in jazz scholarship, and well worth the wait. Robin D. G. Kelley represents one of this generation's most important voices equipped with the knowledge, passion, and respect for both jazz and jazz musicians required to interpret the many details and nuances of Thelonious Monk's life. This compelling book will both challenge old assumptions and inspire new assessments of the life and legacy one of the world's greatest musicians."
- Geri Allen, pianist, composer, and Associate Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation, University of Michigan
"Powerful, enraging, and enduring.... In Robin Kelley's finely grained and surely definitive lifeand-times study, Thelonious Monk, an American original, has found an original biographer."
- David Levering Lewis, biographer of W. E. B. Du Bois and Pulitzer Prize winner
"An honest and eloquent treatment of one of our most important artists, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is a stunning tour de force! It is the most comprehensive treatment of Monk's life to date. Furthermore, in Monk's story, Kelley has found the perfect medium to shed light on a nation's, and a people's, history and persistent quest for freedom. In so doing he has given us a book that is as bold, brilliant, and beautiful as Monk and his music."
- Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday
Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. From 2003-2006, he was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia University. From 1994-2003, he was a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University as well the chairman of NYU's history department from 2002-2003.
One of the youngest tenured professors in a full academic discipline at the age of 32. Kelley has spent most of his career exploring American and African American history with a particular emphasis on African-American musical culture, including jazz and hip-hop.