Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The late musician and composer Thelonious Monk was one of the giants of modern jazz. But his music was often dismissed by critics early in his career. Critical attention did finally come his way. It was accompanied, though, by rumors and myths that he was difficult, a recluse and an untrained genius.

As NPR's Walter Ray Watson reports, a new biography seeks to dispel some of those myths.

WALTER RAY WATSON: Biographer Robin Kelley wants to clear the air about Thelonious Monk.

Mr. ROBIN KELLEY (Biographer): His story challenges a very tired idea of the tortured artist committed to making an art by any means necessary.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Kelley teaches history and American studies at the University of Southern California. He says Monk wanted people to enjoy his music � and buy it.

Mr. KELLEY: He was someone who thought of music as a vocation to keep his family afloat, his wife Nellie, his two kids. And so he took his work seriously.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Kelley says that Monk was not an isolated genius. He was connected to his New York City community. He played benefits for the social causes of the day. And his talent was not some mysterious, God-given gift: Monk studied.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. THELONIOUS MONK (Musician): Well, I always did want to play piano � the first piano I saw I tried to play it.

WATSON: That's a rare Thelonious Monk interview from a public television show broadcast on New York's Channel 13 on June 22nd, 1963.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. MONK: I learned how to read before I took lessons, you know, watching my sister practice her lessons over her shoulder.

WATSON: This is but one of Kelley's discoveries over the 14 years and 300 interviews he spent researching his book. Kelley learned that Monk may have started reading music when he was 10. By the time he was 11, he began studying with a classically trained pianist, Simon Wolf.

Mr. KELLEY: The kinds of exercises he gave Thelonious came out of the books of Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff. These were the composers Monk was drawn to.

WATSON: Kelley also learned that Monk studied with Alberta Simmons, a stride pianist and contemporary of Fats Waller. He incorporated her teaching into his playing, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. T. S. MONK (Drummer): For me, he was a father first, and then he was this Thelonious Monk guy second.

WATSON: That's drummer T.S. Monk, son of the famed musician. Despite his father's daily rehearsals and a constant parade of musicians through the apartment, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, in the most important ways, it was a fairly normal household with a mom who worked a day job.

Mr. T.S. MONK: It would be me, my father and my sister. He was changing diapers � there was no such thing as a Pamper in those days, so these were funky diapers that you put in a bucket. And people don't think of Thelonious Monk as Mr. Mom, but I clearly watched Thelonious Monk do the Mr. Mom thing big time.

WATSON: T.S. Monk helped biographer Robin Kelley gain access to the pianist's personal effects � and to his widow, Nellie Monk. She had a central role in the musician's life and career. And she functioned to a great degree as his manager. She also gave her son permission to loan Kelley rare recordings that had not been heard outside the family.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: Theses are gems, just incredible gems, particularly in this wonderful recording of him dealing with the song "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: You hear him first try to assimilate the song, understand its dimensions. And he's playing a passage over and over again. And it sounds like somebody who doesn't know the song, though you know he does.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: And he works through it. And after about, really, 45 minutes of working through this, as if he's struggling, he suddenly gets his stride.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: He obtains a kind of mastery of the song. And if there's any lesson in those tapes, he said, it was hard for Monk to play Monk.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Robin Kelley says it may have also been hard for Monk to be Monk. He was known to drink heavily, to smoke marijuana, and he struggled with what was initially diagnosed and treated as manic depression. It took two decades before he got help for bipolar disorder. T.S. Monk remembers a cold New York day.

Mr. T. S. MONK: There was about three feet of snow already on the ground. And my father put on his slippers, his silk pajamas, his seal-skin hat, period and went walking down West End Avenue. And I knew that I had to put on all my winter stuff, and I had to follow him to make sure that nothing happened to him.

WATSON: Despite his challenges, Monk could also be wryly funny in his own way as the rare public TV appearance illustrates. His interviewer is arranger Hall Overton.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. HALL OVERTON (Composer, Arranger): Could you say something about your beliefs and your music and who you would like to reach with your music?

Mr. MONK: I'd like to reach everybody, the public, plus the musicians. I mean, that's a standard that I set for my songs. Something that will get to the people's ear, plus, no criticism from the musicians.

Mr. KELLEY: He reminds the audience that, yes, I have a technical mastery of what I want to do, but I also have humor. And the humor is actually in the music. Part of what I want to do is make you laugh, make you think differently.

WATSON: To think differently, that's part of Kelley's intention for readers. But his motivation was to craft a portrait that both Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie would've appreciated. Monk died in 1982, and his widow in 2002, before Kelley finished the book.

Mr. KELLEY: I think that if they can see the truth in their own lives, then I succeeded. And it's up to us to try to figure out and engage that truth.

WATSON: In the 588 pages of "Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original," Robin Kelley gives us a lot to engage.

Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: