Sadly, it's becoming more and more rare that we get good critical biographies. Instead of making sense of an artist's work, many books today simply lay out the facts, as if the details of an artist's life tells us everything we need to know about the subject. (In many ways, it's no different than a film critic who spends most of his time summarizing the plot rather than explaining what works and what doesn't and why.) John Corcelli wisely seized on this issue when he took on Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive and celebrated book on jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.
|Author Robin D.G. Kelley|
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, which is written in chronological sequence, reads more like a diary than critical biography. While I was impressed by Kelley’s research and his ability to detail the story of Monk’s extended family (especially his relationship with his children, T.S. Monk, and daughter Barbara aka Boo Boo, his wife Nellie and his nieces and nephews) little is revealed about the man beyond the purely functional. He was a good parent, albeit inconsistent according to his son, but the author fails to develop any theories or ideas regarding Monk’s personal life and his creativity. I’ve always believed that there’s a connection between one’s life and one’s art. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but they aren’t separate from one another either. And this, unfortunately, is one of the missing aspects of Kelley’s articulation. He gives us the facts in great detail but offers little in discerning the meaning of those facts and how Monk’s compositions may or may not have reflected his life.
Kelley is most successful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding Monk, such as his lateness for engagements due to his strange, mysterious behavior; that he wasn’t reliable as a working musician. In fact, he goes to great lengths to suggest that the stories were partly due to Monk and his own publicist creating a buzz about the man early in his career so that he could be recognized for his work. Unfortunately, Kelley repeats this idea in virtually every chapter. He also reports that Monk is misunderstood by the jazz press and under-recognized as a musical genius, an opinion that limited Monk’s success for over ten years of his life until 1960. But this misunderstanding, coupled with Monk’s often-erratic behavior in public, strengthened the legends about Monk that he carried with him until his retirement from music in 1976.
While I admire Robin Kelley’s dedicated effort to write a detailed biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original gets lost in the details. Thelonious Monk, one of America’s most enigmatic jazz artists, remains an enigma.
- originally published on September 26, 2010 in Critics at Large.