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In A New Biography, Monk Minus The Myth

Thelonious Monk relaxes with his wife, Nellie, before performing at the Royal Festival Hall in London on April 29, 1961.
Erich Auerbach / Getty Images
Getty Images
Thelonious Monk relaxes with his wife, Nellie, before performing at the Royal Festival Hall in London on April 29, 1961.

Biographer Robin D.G. Kelley wants to clear the air about Thelonious Monk.

"His story challenges a very tired idea of the tortured artist ... committed to making an art by any means necessary," Kelley says.

Kelley teaches history and American studies at the University of Southern California. He says Monk wanted people to enjoy his music — and purchase it, too.

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

Monk died more than 25 years ago, but his music is still played and heard around the world.

Monk's work was often discounted by critics and the general public during the better part of his first two decades as a performer. When critical attention came his way, myths were spun around him, many of which remain to this day. Among them: that he was difficult, a recluse, an untrained genius.

But in his new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley tackles those enduring myths. He argues that Monk was not an isolated genius. He was connected to his New York City community, and he played benefits for the social causes of the day.

And his talent was not some mysterious, God-given gift: Monk studied.

"Well, I always did want to play the piano — the first piano I saw, I tried to play it," Monk said on a 1963 public television broadcast on New York's Channel 13. "I learned how to read before I took lessons, you know, watching my sister practice her lessons over her shoulder."

That recording is but one of Kelley's discoveries over the 14 years he spent researching his book. In scouring roughly 300 interviews, he says he 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 named Simon Wolf.

"The kinds of exercises he gave Thelonious came out of the books of Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff," Kelley says. "These were the composers Monk was drawn to; Bach, Beethoven to a lesser degree."

In addition, Kelley notes that Monk studied with the stride pianist Alberta Simmons, a contemporary of Fats Waller.

Thelonious Monk, Dad

Drummer T.S. Monk is the son of the famed musician.

"For me, he was a father first, and then he was this Thelonious guy second," T.S. Monk says.

In spite of his father's daily rehearsals at home — and a constant parade of musicians through the apartment, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — in the most important ways, the Monks had a fairly normal household, with a mom who worked a day job.

"It would be me, my father and my sister," T.S. Monk says. "He had on a wife-beater [shirt], and he was changing diapers — there was no such thing as Pampers back then, so these were funky diapers that you put in a bucket. And people don't think of Thelonious as Mr. Mom, but I clearly saw him do the Mr. Mom thing, big-time."

T.S. Monk helped Kelley gain access to the pianist's personal effects — and to his widow, Nellie Monk. She played 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 rare recordings of Monk playing that had not been heard outside the family. Kelley calls them "just incredible gems."

"And what I heard particularly in this wonderful recording of him dealing with the song 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You,' " Kelley says, "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.

"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. And he obtains a kind of mastery of the song. And if there's any lesson in those tapes, it's that it was hard for Monk to play Monk."

Thinking Differently

Kelley says it may also have been hard for Monk to be Monk.

He was known to drink heavily and to smoke marijuana, and his struggles with what was initially described and treated as manic depression were ongoing. It took two decades before he got proper help for his bipolar disorder.

T.S. Monk remembers a cold New York day with 3 inches of snow on the ground.

"My father put on his slippers, his silk pajamas, his seal-skin hat — period," he says. "And we're walking down West End Avenue. And I knew I had to put on all my winter stuff, and I had to follow him to make sure that nothing happened to him."

In spite of his challenges, Monk could also be wryly funny in his own way. In that 1963 public television appearance, he was interviewed by Hall Overton, a composer and arranger with whom he'd worked. Overton asked Monk to talk about his intended audience:

"I'd like to reach everybody, the public plus the musicians; that's the standard I set for my songs," Monk said. "Something that will get to the people's ear, plus ... no criticism from the musicians."

"What he reminds the audience is 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 you to do is make you laugh, make you think differently,' " Kelley says.

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

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

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.