'Thelonious Monk': A New Look At An American Original Robin D.G. Kelley's new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, focuses on the career of the eccentric jazz pianist and composer. It reveals new details about Monk's life, music and mental health problems, and provides a glimpse into the New York jazz scene of the mid-twentieth century.
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'Monk': A New Look At An American Original

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'Monk': A New Look At An American Original

'Monk': A New Look At An American Original

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Robin D.G. Kelley, has written a new biography of the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, whose dissonant harmonies and angular rhythms have had a profound and lasting impact on jazz. Kelley says his research debunks several myths about Monk. For instance, Monk has often been portrayed as eccentric, but Kelley says Monk actually suffered from bipolar disorder. Monk was sometimes portrayed as primitive or childlike, but Kelley says Monk possessed an impressive knowledge of and appreciation for Western classical music, gospel music, American popular songs, and art song.

Kelley's book is based in part on conversations with Monk's surviving relatives, including his widow Nellie, who died while Kelley was researching the book. Kelley also had access to tapes of Monk's music and conversations recorded by Nellie and the photographer W. Eugene Smith.

Robin Kelley is a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California. His book is called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." Monk was born in 1917 and died in 1982. Let's start with Monk's first recording of his most famous composition, "'Round Midnight." This is a 1947 Blue Note recording.

(Soundbite of song, "'Round Midnight")

GROSS: That's Thelonious Monk at the piano, playing his composition "'Round Midnight." This is his first recording of it, from 1947. My guest is Robin Kelley, the author of a new biography of Monk. Robin D.G. Kelley, welcome to FRESH AIR. So Robin, tell us the story behind "'Round Midnight." How did Monk write it?

Mr. ROBIN D.G. KELLEY (Author): Sure. The song was originally called "I Need You So." It's one of my great discoveries. And it was written with lyrics, and he worked with a friend of his who lived in the neighborhood, a woman named Thelma Elizabeth Murray(ph), and she wrote these beautiful lyrics to the song, and it was a love song. It was his attempt to get a hit, because one of his goals was to get a hit.

But he copyrighted the song in 1943. This is four years before he first recorded it, but he could not get his own recording. Eventually, Cootie Williams, the bandleader, basically made the first recording of it. Bud Powell, who was a pianist himself, who was one of Monk's friends and hung out with Monk, convinced Cootie to record it, and Cootie added an interlude, and when he recorded it, which is typical of bandleaders, he put his name on as a co-composer, and later he found another lyricist, a man named Bernie Hannigan(ph), and he put his name on as a co-composer. So in the end, not only did Monk not make the first recording, but from that point on he became a third owner of the song, and to this day the Monk estate only gets a third of the royalties as a result.

GROSS: Now, you discovered that the song was originally called "I Need You So," and a friend of Monk's wrote a lyric for it. Could you read, or better yet sing, the lyrics for us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: I can't sing. I can play the piano, but I can't sing. I will read some of the lyrics here. Let's see, let me just find it. And there's a story behind the lyric because he was just beginning his relationship with the woman who'd become his wife, Nellie Monk, and when Thelma Elizabeth Murray wrote the lyrics, I'm convinced that, you know, for Thelonious at least, it spoke to his sense of loss when she went away to college and came back. And so some of the lyrics are: Since you went away, I missed you. Every hour, I wish to kiss you. You are in my dreams always. I need you so.

And then in the bridge, she wrote: You are my own. Still, I am all alone, longing, waiting. I love you so, darling. This is why I'll go on believing you'll be standing by my side sooner than I realize. I need you so.

GROSS: Monk invented his own piano style. How would you describe some of Monk's compositional and pianistic innovations?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, there - a few things. One, Monk loved dissonance, and by dissonance, those clashing intervals, you know? Sometimes he'll play, like, an F and F sharp at the same time. Now, on the one hand, that sounds like it's innovative and fresh and new, but a lot of these devices, the dissonance, the kind of off-meter playing, these are devices that he learned from the old-stride pianists in Harlem, people like James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion Smith. He just took it to a more exaggerated place.

GROSS: Wait, wait. When you say he learned from them personally, like watching them or listening to their records?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, personally, I mean, one of the things that amazes me about Monk's story no one's really written about before my book is the fact that he spent as much time hanging out with these old pianists in the late '30s and early '40s as he did with sort of the bebop young musicians, and so there's a great story that Billy Taylor tells in the book where, you know, he ends up going to James P. Johnson's house.

He doesn't realize where he is, and he's there, and all these piano players, a guy named Gippy(ph) and Clarence Profit and Willie The Lion Smith, and there's, you know, young Thelonious Monk playing stride piano with everyone else. These little parlors became really spaces for musicians to show off and teach each other and really just celebrate the instrument of the piano.

And so Monk is very much rooted in these older traditions, and so he would take these old practices, even the bent notes that he played, and he'd take that James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion and, you know, give it a kind of modern twist.

And then the other thing about Monk is that, you know, he came up at a time when bebop was taking off, and piano players used their left hand less frequently, whereas the old-fashioned players always used the left hand.

Playing - having a strong left hand was part of what made you a pianist. So Monk was able to retain that strong left hand, and when you listen to him play, his left hand had such great independence that if you just listen to the lower notes, they're very carefully placed. They're not just supporting the harmonies. They're rhythmically rich and fascinating, and they have their own kind of counter-melodies.

So he has a melody on the right and a melody on the left going at the same time.

GROSS: Well, I want to play "Trinkle, Tinkle," which is one of Monk's compositions, and his left hand is so strong on this. You know, Max Roach is the drummer on this track, but it sounds like there's two drummers almost, you know, Monk's left hand and Roach.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So say something about "Trinkle, Tinkle" and this recording of it and what's special about it to you.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, well, "Trinkle, Tinkle" is one of my favorites. Most people know the version he did with John Coltrane, but this is the first recording, made in 1952, and Max Roach, as you mentioned, is the drummer. Gary Mapp is the bass player, and to me it is an example of Monk's virtuosity as a piano player.

And like you say, you know, his left and right hand, the independence of them both, make the song, but he is able to, I think, recover or restore the sort of old-stride pianist's little tricks with his right hand, and he has this kind of rhythmic sensibility that's so strong and so powerful. He swings so hard that he's always on the beat, you know. Even when he seems to be floating away from it, the beat's always there, and it's a very difficult song to play, I'll put it that way.

GROSS: And just one other thing. His runs are so great and so off-kilter.

Mr. KELLEY: They are, definitely.

GROSS: Okay, so this is "Trinkle, Tinkle," recorded in 1952, Thelonious Monk.

(Soundbite of song, "Trinkle, Tinkle")

GROSS: That's Thelonious Monk's 1952 version of "Trinkle, Tinkle," his own composition. Robin, is that his first recording of it?

Mr. KELLEY: That's his first recording of it, yeah.

GROSS: Max Roach was featured on drums. My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and he's written a new biography of Thelonious Monk called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original."

What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded "Trinkle, Tinkle" in 1952?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, it was a very difficult time. Nellie, his wife, called it the un-years, you know, U-N, un-years, because in 1951, in August, he had been arrested for possession of heroin. The short version of the story is that he was in a car with Bud Powell and two people he did not know. Bud Powell had a glassine envelope with heroin in it.

When the police pulled up just to investigate the car sitting in front of Monk's house, Bud Powell threw the heroin in front of the car, and it landed at Monk's feet. He - they all were arrested, but it was Thelonious who served time.

He ended up serving 60 days - Rikers Island in the work house, and he never did turn Bud Powell in, you know, which - it would be unusual if he did, but he ended up taking the rap.

What's interesting and probably worse than the jail sentence is that he lost his cabaret card, and in New York City, as a result of a law that was passed in 1940, everyone who worked in establishments that served alcohol, because of the cabaret laws, had to have a cabaret card. The police issued these cards and they also took them away.

And so because this was Thelonious' second conviction, he'd been arrested for drug possession in '48, he lost his card indefinitely, and so from 1951 until the spring of 1957, he had no cabaret card, and that meant that, in theory, he could not work in places that served alcohol in New York. That's the bad news.

The good news is that thanks to the outer boroughs, places like Brooklyn and the Bronx and black-owned clubs, Monk was able to find some work, but it wasn't enough to sustain his family. I mean, his wife worked constantly. He had a small son. He was born December '49, and it was a real struggle then. And these recording sessions, few and far between, were one very small source of income.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Thelonious Monk with Robin D.G. Kelley, who's just written a biography of Monk. It's called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about Monk. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and we're talking about his biography of the great composer and pianist, Thelonious Monk.

Monk also had problems with his mental health. Were there signs of that early on? Later in life, it disabled him. Later in life, there were periods where he was just about catatonic, but in the early '50s, at the time of the recording we just heard, what was his mental health like then?

Mr. KELLEY: You know, that's a good question. I find evidence of bipolar disorder, you know, the manic depression, and these cycles of manic depression, as early as the 1940s. But these examples, the evidence always got portrayed as examples of Monk's eccentricities, you know, that he would be up for two or three days at a time. Then he'd crash. He'd go from house to house, looking for a piano.

This became part of the story or the lore around Monk, but of course no one knew about bipolar disorder in the 1940s and couldn't see it as a diagnosis.

By the '50s, and around the time he made these recordings, he was pretty stable, but as the decade progressed, his cycles became more frequent, and they got worse. And so 1957, late '56, actually, Christmas '56, he was hospitalized for the first time, taken to Bellevue Hospital after he got into a small fender-bender with someone, and the police didn't know what to do with him, and he was sort of standing there uncommunicative.

And he ended up spending about three weeks in Bellevue with no diagnosis. A couple of years later, he ends up at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts, and there he is diagnosed with depression, and they give him Thorazine.

And the thing about Monk's experience with mental illness, there are two things I try to establish in the book. One is that these incidents were episodic. You know, he wasn't constantly unraveling. There were just moments, in fact they were almost seasonal, when he would unravel.

And he got - the second thing is that he got very bad medical care, and it's not - you know, race has something to do with it, but it's not just that. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the state of psychiatry just isn't where it is today, and so a lot of the diagnosis was sort of, you know, not clear. The medication was kind of problematic. Thorazine was the antipsychotic drug of choice, and it didn't help Monk at all in terms of handling these episodes.

GROSS: One of the things Monk became known for that was considered a sign of his eccentricity is that sometimes on the bandstand or outside of the club, he would just start spinning around in circles, and you know, some people say, oh, he was dancing, and now I know - some people think of this as a sign of autistic behavior, and I wonder if you've thought about that at all.

Mr. KELLEY: I thought about it and rejected it.

GROSS: Tell me why.

Mr. KELLEY: Only because Monk was very clear about dance. I mean - and he also wasn't the only musician who got up and danced, actually. You know, he was the one who was the most famous, but he loved to dance with music and he used dancing in various ways, one to conduct the band. Ask any drummer, and they would say when Monk got up to dance, he actually would give you the accents that he wanted. He would basically show you and demonstrate what he wanted to do. And there's a wonderful moment during his rehearsal for his big band in 1959, when his French horn player, we know as Brother Ah(ph), couldn't get the rhythm right.

So Monk takes a break, takes him to the corner, and he dances the whole part. He dances his part, and it's like all of a sudden it just clicked and he understood exactly what he needed to do. They went back to the rehearsal, played it just fine.

And then Monk does come out of a tradition of dance. When he was a teenager, he was one of the hoofers. He was among the tap-dancers in his neighborhood, where everyone tap-danced. So I see the dancing as dancing.

GROSS: Interesting. A lot of jazz musicians, during the period that Monk played, had problems with heroin and with alcohol. How much did that affect - you know, did Monk have a heroin habit? Did he drink a lot? Were those problems for him?

Mr. KELLEY: They were problems. Drinking probably was more of a problem than heroin, and I talk about this in terms of the environmental hazards of the music.

GROSS: Of jazz clubs at the time.

Mr. KELLEY: Of jazz clubs, exactly. I mean, think about what it means to work in place where the raison d'�tre is to sell alcohol - I mean, that's what that do - and where they really encourage musicians to run up a tab as a way to reduce the night's payment.

And so Monk, you know, he liked Wild Turkey, he liked Old Granddad bourbon. He drank quite a bit. He smoked reefer, but then everyone was smoking reefer, you know, in those days, to the point where - I mean marijuana was legal up to 1937. You know, it wasn't a federal crime before '37.

Heroin was something he used intermittently. He was never an addict, but he was very carnivalesque about what he would take, up to a point, and then his nephew, Ronnie Newkirk(ph), died of a heroin overdose, and that set him off. I mean, he didn't touch it after that point, and he really was on his nieces and nephews and children about drug use, you know, became - reacted very, very strongly to his nephew's death.

GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music by Thelonious Monk)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robin D.G. Kelley. Before we talk more about his new biography of the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, let's hear a Monk composition dedicated to his wife Nellie. This is Monk's 1957 recording of "Crepuscule With Nellie."

(Soundbite of song, "Crepuscule With Nellie")

GROSS: That's "Crepuscule With Nellie. Thelonious Monk's composition as Monk recorded it in 1957. And it's interesting that both Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane are featured on this track. Like two great saxophonists representing two very different styles, two different generations. Hawkins is a very, you know, very early on in jazz. Coltrane ushers in, you know, a new era.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did Monk have good relationships with both of them?

Mr. KELLEY: Coleman Hawkins was the first musician to hire Monk regularly, so Monk revered Hawkins. Monk always said that every saxophone player has a little bit of Hawkins in him. He loved Coltrane and in some ways, the roles were reversed. Monk hired Coltrane when after Miles Davis basically fired him and really taught Coltrane a lot. So there's a kind of mentorship relationship between all three of them.

And finally, you know, for Coleman Hawkins, you know, he had this line he always said. He said, you know, the music never goes seasonal to me. Meaning that he couldn't abide by this sort of modern swing, old new distinctions, because for him, he was always hip, always on the cutting edge no matter where the music is going. And so for Coltrane and Hawkins to play together, for Hawkins, it made perfect sense, you know.

GROSS: So "Crepuscule With Nellie" is dedicated to Monk's wife, Nellie, who did so much to help him through his life. What are some of the things she did to take care of him?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, you know, they knew each other since they were teenagers, really, and they grew up in the same neighborhood. So Nellie, you know, knew Monk very, very well and in many ways, during the first early years of their lives, she worked. You know, she worked as a hotel elevator operator at the Hotel Taft. She worked for Chock Full o'Nuts.

She had all these odd jobs to make it when Monk couldn't find work. She, you know, raised two children but she spent a lot of time on the road with Thelonious first as a road manager in some ways, traveling with him. She made sure he was ready, dressed, you know, always you know, looking good.

And later, when his health began to really fall apart, she took over a lot of the functions of the band. She would hire and fire musicians. She was, you know, making arrangements and dates, and she was basically doing everything until it got to be too much for her.

GROSS: There's another woman very important in Monk's life, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. And she was actually a Rothschild. Koenigswarter was her husband's name. So she was a Rothschild. She had pedigree and had more money than Monk did. They met in Paris when Monk was performing there and she moved to New York. They became very close. She helped take of him. He lived with her during the last years of his life.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the nature of their relationship.

Mr. KELLEY: Sure. As you said, they met in '54. They became very close friends. And it's very important to establish that she also became close friends with Nellie. And this is something I've been trying to say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: ...for a long time. It's almost like a lot of people don't hear this part. All three of them were friends. She was as close to Nellie as she was as close to Monk.

GROSS: Are you saying a lot of people thought well, Nica and - the Baroness was called Nica - Pannonica...

Mr. KELLEY: Right.

GROSS: ...Nica short for that. So you're saying that a lot of people thought that Nica and Monk's relationship was probably more than platonic and that Nellie...

Mr. KELLEY: Right.

GROSS: ...must've been angry about it, but that wasn't the case.

Mr. KELLEY: That wasn't the case. I mean the rumors that they had a romantic relationship or the other rumor that Nellie and Nica competed -and it's not the case at all. They both worked together in Thelonious' interest. And, you know, she was like an aunt to kids and like a, you know, sister-in-law to Nellie in some ways. And she was very, very important at certain moments in Monk's life when he needed help, when he needed to get his cabaret card back for example.

GROSS: And you know what, something else that Nica did for Monk - during the period when he didn't have a piano, she got a piano at her place and he could come over and play there.

Mr. KELLEY: Yes. Yes, beautiful sentiment.

GROSS: And during the last few years of his life he lived with her. And this is a kind of, you know, mysterious thing. He's married to Nellie but he's living with Nica. How come?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, in 1973, it was clear that, you know, she couldn't take care of him. His condition had worsened. He had been hospitalized again. And so everyone decided it would make more sense for him to live in the house in Weehawken, New Jersey.

The important part of the story is that Nellie came over just about every day on the bus. She'd cook for him. She'd take care of him. He had his own floor. He had the second floor of the house. So she was still very much his wife and Nica basically had the space and resources to make sure he was well cared for during those last years.

GROSS: My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley. We'll talk more about his biography of Thelonious Monk after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music by Thelonious Monk)

GROSS: My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley. He's written a new biography of the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk.

Well, let's get back to some music.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You've chosen some things for us to hear and the next one is Monk's version of "Nice Work If You Can Get It," the Gershwin song. And this is from 1964. I love Monk's recordings of pop songs, because he reworks them.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Like you can tell he loves the melody.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You can tell he loves old songs - not that this one was that old, but, you know, he recorded older ones too. But you could tell he loves the song and yet, he reworks it.

Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He completely - he changes the harmonies and alters the rhythms. Talk to us about his version of "Nice Work" and why you chose it.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah. Well, "Nice Work" is a song that's been in his repertoire since the 40s and he loves it because he loves Gershwin's sort of use of certain sonorities. You know, for the technical people, it's the flat 9th. But it's a certain sound that Monk loved and he loved the fact that the harmonies moved in chromatic descending ways and it was just match his own compositional sense.

And what's interesting about Monk and these old standards is that he didn't stray too far. I mean he put his own imprint on it but he would play on the elements that are already there. And he just loved - and Gershwin's a great songwriter.

GROSS: And you were talking earlier about the influence of the stride pianists on Monk and we'll certainly hear it in this.

Mr. KELLEY: Yes. Thelonious became even more invested in the stride piano by the time he made this recording in 1962, I believe - '64, I'm sorry, '64. And for him, what's interesting is that he's returning back to an older style at a moment when jazz itself is sort of moving towards the kind of avant-garde sensibility. And Monk, as a way to distinguish himself from the avant-garde, really returns back to these old traditional forms.

GROSS: all right. So this is Thelonious Monk's 1964 recording of "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

(Soundbite of song, "Nice Work If You Can Get It")

GROSS: That's Monk playing Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It," recorded in 1964. My guest, Robin D.G. Kelley has written a new biography of Thelonious Monk.

What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded that?

Mr. KELLEY: Well, '64 was in some ways Monk's year. He was on the cover of Time Magazine, you know, in February of '64.

GROSS: What was he doing on the cover? What was the angle?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: Well, the short version of the story is that Barry Farrell, who wrote the cover story, wanted to write about jazz musicians and almost by default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were too controversial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLEY: So Monk was chosen. I know it's funny, huh when you think about it. Monk was chosen and the article became a story about Monk's weirdness, eccentricities and his drug use. You know, on the one hand and on the other hand it became a story about Monk not being so weird, because in fact, in this day when black jazz musicians seemed to be more militant and complaining and whining about racism, Monk had no complaints. That Monk in fact was the safer bet, you know, because he wasn't so political. You know, and so� And, of course, I challenge that, but still, in some ways the cover story was a way of kind of presenting a more tame Monk while still presenting him as the eccentric genius.

GROSS: Monk died in 1982. How did he die?

Mr. KELLEY: Cerebral hemorrhage. He basically had a stroke. He was living at Nica's house and he, you know, his days were pretty much the same. He'd get up, take a shower, get dressed, get back in bed. And he'd take walks. He'd watch TV. He rarely played the piano. So he was very sad - very sad existence but he seemed, you know, mentally he was very stable. No more manic episodes. So he died of a stroke, much like his wife did, you know, 20 years later.

GROSS: I'd like to end with another recording that you've brought with you, and this "Blue Sphere" recorded in 1971. What's the significance of this recording?

Mr. KELLEY: This was Monk's last recording session as a leader. And this was in London. He was actually on tour with The Giants of Jazz, which is a kind of group with Dizzy Gillespie and others. And, you know, I love this recording because here's Monk in the studio. A lot of it's solo piano, and this is solo piano - it's blues, he makes up this blues on the spot, and you could hear that he hasn't lost his touch. He hasn't lost his sense of imagination, his facility. His health is terrible, he's fatigued, but he could still play that piano and he reaches back to the old, old pianist from way, way back, the traditions out of which he had come, and puts everything he has into the song almost as if he knows it's his last, his last hurrah.

GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. KELLEY: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley's new biography of Monk, called �Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.� And here is that 1971 recording, �Blue Sphere.�

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Sphere")

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