Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original

Jazz biography - serious, scholarly biography - often finds itself pitted against jazz apocrypha, which most jazz fans and players love. Charlie Parker did what in some godforsaken dark alley before racing into a club and tearing it up on stage? Duke Ellington had been awake for how many hours exactly before writing his latest ageless classic? Jazz has always been an oral culture, with many of its truths passed from musician to musician in bars and back rooms. There is an almost irresistible allure to the tall tale that could conceivably be true - especially when knowing the tale can add an extra element of enjoyment to hearing a much-loved piece of music.

So, what is the biographer to do about The­lonious Sphere Monk, a man who was responsible for enough anecdotes to launch several dozen stereotypes? If you've only read a few jazz album sleeve notes, and maybe an encyclopaedia entry or two, it is easy to believe that Monk was the model for every jazzman who followed. He had the requisite narcotics problem, wore a beret, talked in a jiving, gibberish slang, wrote music that seemingly only he could dance to, and he went crazy, prompting a host of medical detectives to try to determine what really ailed him.

The history professor and music critic Robin Kelley maintains that it was a bipolar condition. Kelley is a demystifier, which is an asset here,
as he is able to recontextualise Monk's value as a player and composer, freeing it from the normal "poor Monk" condescensions - which resemble those that sap at the legacy of F Scott Fitzgerald - and revealing instead an artist of implacable purpose, a purpose that was always present in Monk's music, if not in his life.

The life was the most baroque of messes, but it is hard not to admire Monk when you see him surviving horrors that would crush the spirits of most men. Busted for possession while sitting in a parked car where his pal Bud Powell, alcoholic and dependent on anti-psychotics, had thrown his stash, Monk refused to reveal who was culpable, leading the police to revoke his cabaret card - a virtual death sentence for any working musician given that, without a valid card, it was impossible to play in any establishment that served alcohol.

Monk turned to his piano, from which he started to pull rhythms even more fantastic than those he had previously favoured, while retaining his core sense of swing. Then he turned to John Coltrane. At the time, the mid-1950s, Coltrane was hardly anyone's idea of a jazz god, but Monk helped him become one in his Upper West Side apartment, extolling a regimen of constant evolution.

Kelley, like Monk, has a knack for knowing when to lay out and let other voices come forward. "When I almost had the tune down, then he would leave," he allows Coltrane to explain. "And he'd go out somewhere, maybe go to the store, or go to bed or something. And I'd just stay there and run it over until I had it pretty well." Later in his life, Monk's trips to the store sometimes ended with him disappearing, quite unintentionally, requiring an ad hoc neighbourhood watch committee to keep the composer from doing harm to himself unwittingly.

That six-month period with Coltrane is rightly celebrated here - an ostensible fallow patch (Coltrane had been given the boot temporarily from Miles Davis's band on account of his heroin addiction) that ended up producing some of the century's finest music, in any medium, and set Monk and Coltrane up among the brightest stars.

Monk, once deemed too avant-garde to sell records in any great quantity, helped to refashion bebop and its manic excesses. He curtailed its speed and left more openings in the music. As Kelley points out, Monk's compositions tend to envelop the listener, rather than meet him head on. Once surrounded, you are transported to a land that could only have been of Thelonious Monk's making, where dissonances are sweet, and where whatever it was in Monk's mind that interfered with the daily grind of living a life proceeded with perfect musical order.

Unfortunately for Monk, many of his admirers saluted what ought to have been regarded as a legitimate illness (even if no one knew what to call it), choosing to think of him as eccentric rather than unwell. His most joyous moments tended to be quiet, frequently centring on intimate asides and in-jokes with his wife, Nellie. Many were coyly intertextual, with Monk alluding to some press comment or other about his alleged weirdness.

He was often described in the trade press as the hapless genius of jazz, a guy who somehow managed to get it right even though he had no awareness of anything beyond his own compositions. But, as Kelley points out, "Monk loved Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Bach" - and he had more in common with these giants than his detractors, not to mention his more misguided fans, would have us believe.

Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D G Kelley
J R Books, 608pp, £25

Colin Fleming is a writer based in Boston. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and Slate

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.