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