Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Monk's Moods; a Look at Robin Kelley's Bio" by Stephen Provizer

Robin Kelley's massive bio Monk has been widely reviewed and justifiably praised. Monk's musical history is exhaustively researched and definitively outlined. Kelley's chapter on the early days of bop at Minton's and Monroe's is the clearest explanation of that confusing scene I've ever read.

But, when I read biographies, what most interests me is the interplay-the dissonances and congruences-between the art and the artist. The way this is undertaken determines where a biography is placed on the hagiography-to-'gotcha' spectrum.

In his Acknowledgments, Robin Kelley says he "did not want to write an authorized biography" and that Monk's son Toot, "...only asked me to do two things: 'Dig deep and tell the truth.' This is no small task, as Thelonious Monk may be the most enigmatic jazz hero of all. Kelley presents us with a ton of facts. It's up to the reader to decide whether or not we've been told "the truth."

Kelley's decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to soft-peddle, play out palpably throughout the book. There seems to be no doubt that Monk was both a seer and a pain in the ass. He was a visionary and an egotist; a doting father and an absent one; a hard worker who turned it off when he felt slighted; a boss who said he "never fired anyone," but often replaced band members on short notice.

The story of Monk's drugs and alcohol use is often alluded to, but not deeply explored. This is an important omission, as much of what we think about Monk hangs on his biochemistry. I.e., when did he begin to get in the thrall of bi-polar-ism? To what extent are the episodes described caused by personal chemistry? Drugs? Some combination of the two? How much control might he have exerted over his drug and alcohol intake? Kelley tilts the moral ambiguity in favor of Monk, as one might emphasize a deceased uncle's intelligence over his biting sarcasm.

Kelley's failure to go more deeply into the "personal responsibility" aspect of the story is reflected in another way. Much is said to denigrate the media or other people's take on Monk as naive or child-like. But Kelley often purveys Monk as someone who is unaware that his odd behavior might make people think he's odd. On the other hand, Kelley often takes pains to tell us how aware Monk is of his surroundings and circumstances.

A biography may provide a means of self-reflection that can help us gain insight into ourselves. After all, deciding whether a book such as this tells "the truth" is less about facts than the reader's personal morality. But here, you get a bit of the same feeling you get with "embedded" war reporting. Living, eating, sleeping and facing bullets together affects what you choose to put in and leave out.

In this book, Robin Kelley has given us an amazing story, but we may need a slightly more detached scholar to help us through the dense psychic thicket that was Thelonious Monk.


Eric Jensen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. I'm just digging into the book myself.

Steve Provizer said...

You're welcome... When you get farther along, let me know what you think about my thesis.