Inexplicably, 27 years after passing to his glory, there are only a handful of biographies of the great American jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. To paraphrase an obscure rhythm and blues tune, Monk was an original original who ranks with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis as an innovator and singular personality. As the Thelonious Records web site notes
With the arrival [of] Thelonious Sphere Monk, modern music--let alone modern culture--simply hasn't been the same. Recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any musical genre, Monk achieved a startlingly original sound that even his most devoted followers have been unable to successfully imitate... His commitment to originality in all aspects of life--in fashion, in his creative use of language and economy of words, in his biting humor, even in the way he danced away from the piano--has led fans and detractors alike to call him "eccentric," "mad," or even "taciturn." Consequently, Monk has become perhaps the most talked about and least understood artist in the history of jazz.
Now comes historian Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
(Free Press) whose decade of diligent research includes previously inaccessible Monk family archives of papers and recordings to correct the skewed and distorted conventional wisdom on Monk. From the prologue, Kelley explains
Thelonious Monk was very much of the world, at least until mental and physical illness finally caused him to withdraw, making his world seem much smaller, self-contained, and at times impenetrable. For most of his life he remained engaged and fascinated with his surroundings. Politics, art, commerce, nature, architecture, history were not beyond his ken, and Monk was the kind of man who loved a good debate, despite stories of his inability to communicate. Fortunately, many of his close friends and family members have been willing to share their stories, most of which have never been told before in print. They reveal a startlingly different Thelonious Monk--witty, incredibly generous, intensely family-oriented, curious, critical, and brutally honest. In addition, Monk himself was frequently captured on tape telling stories, debating, or just shooting the breeze.