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David Rodgers

January 26, 2017


Thelonious Monk: The Life & Times of an American Original is a thorough and detailed account
of the life of jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk. Assembled and told by author, Robin D. G. Kelley,
this account is comprised of anecdotes, memories, written accounts, and other interviews with
Monks friends and acquaintances. Kelley tells the story of Monks life in a fairly chronological
manner, though each chapter does not necessarily stay within the overarching chronological
timeline. The result is a non-linear chronological account of Monks life. This is only slightly
distracting due to the simple writing style Kelley provides. It is not a hard read, and Kelley
doesnt seek to do much with the prose other than just present the factual material as it is.
These would be my only mild criticisms of the work as a whole. The entire biography is well
constructed. Kelley starts us off with Monks early years, introducing us to his mother, Barbara
Monk, who moved her family from North Carolina to New York City, essentially leaving behind
her husband, Thelonious Monk, Sr. who had been committed to a hospital for what we now
understand as a bipolar disorder. Monk III attended Stuyvesant High School where he attended
less than 25% of his days of classes and received zeros in every single class. As a young
musician, Mary Lou Williams, an accomplished pianist in her own right, remembers hearing
Monk at a Kansas City jam session and noted that his sense of style hadnt changed. His piano
teacher, an Austrian emigrant and accomplished classical pianist, Simon Wolf, noted that at 11
years old, Monk would in 2 years surpass anything Wolf could teach him. Monk ended up
pursuing jazz and became notorious for his eccentricities. We now know that Monk had
inherited his fathers bipolar disorder. He had a witty sense of humor, loved keeping people off
balance, would often dance on stage, and had a particular fashion sense. He loved dressing
sharply and had a fascination with hear-wear from all corners of the globe. Perhaps the
highlight (for me) of the biography is the large quantity of primary sources Kelley has
accumulated. There are lots of pictures at the end of the book, lots of direct quotes throughout,
a detailed theoretical explanation of Monks musical sense (harmonically & rhythmically), and
the jewel of them all, a list of all the records that Monk and his wife, Nellie, had collected.