In 1964 a pianist with the unusual name of Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of Time. He was only the fourth jazz musician to be so featured, and unlike his predecessors, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington, he was unknown to the public at large. Why, then, was he put on the cover of a newsmagazine written for a mass audience of middlebrows? Because he was an eccentric whose peculiarities made for good copy—a “mad genius,” in Time’s words, who suffered from “periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute.”
That Monk deserved attention for other, better reasons is now beyond question. The sharp-edged, excitingly astringent wit of his hard-swinging compositions, which bore such gnomic titles as “I Mean You,” “Off Minor,” and “Well, You Needn’t,” had already won him the acclaim of musicians and critics, who rightly regarded him as a key figure in the development of modern jazz. Today he is universally considered to be one of the greatest artists in the music’s history, and his best-known tunes, most notably “’Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser,” are played the world over.1
On the other hand, Monk’s deliberately awkward-sounding pianism has never been as popular as his compositions, and in the 40s and 50s, it was actively controversial, not merely among jazz aficionados but also among his fellow pianists. Oscar Peterson, for one, dismissed him as “limited technically.” Moreover, his bizarre behavior, fascinating though it was to Time’s editors, surely had much to do with the reluctance of some listeners to take his music seriously.
Was Thelonious Monk mentally ill—and if he was, is that fact relevant to our understanding of his music? A primary-source biography that seeks to answer the first of these questions has now been published. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original2 is one of the longest biographies of a jazz musician ever to see print. Scrupulously sourced (the endnotes run to 99 pages of agate-sized type) and written with the cooperation of Monk’s family, it is the first factually accurate account of the pianist’s life, one for which scholars will long be grateful.
Alas, like most very long biographies, Thelonious Monk is encrusted with unselective detail that contributes little to the reader’s understanding of its subject. Not only does Kelley have next to nothing of interest to say about Monk’s music, but his book also contains numerous historical excursions that place Monk’s life in the larger context of American history in general and black history in particular, most of which could have been shortened to useful effect. But when he addresses the problem of Monk’s sanity, he does so in a way that sheds light on whether one of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century suffered from a major mental illness.
Born in North Carolina in 1917, Monk moved with his family five years later to New York City. He studied piano briefly as a boy, then spent two years playing gospel piano for an itinerant evangelist, after which he returned to New York and set up shop as a jazz musician. By 1941 he was working at Minton’s Playhouse, a Harlem club where a group of younger players were experimenting with a new style of jazz that came to be known as bebop. He made his first recordings as a leader in 1947, and between then and 1954 he recorded most of the compositions for which he is known today.
Despite their common provenance, these pieces had little in common with the bebop of the 40s. Unlike the simple riff-based “tunes” of the swing era or the virtuoso obstacle courses of such beboppers as Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Monk’s compositions are laconic, painstakingly wrought miniatures whose splintery dissonances and oddly tilted rhythms are often strongly reminiscent of 20th-century classical music (though he does not appear to have been influenced by, or even closely aware of, any modern classical composers).
Just as distinctive was Monk’s approach to the piano. He played with stiff, flattened-out fingers, hammering the keyboard as if it were a set of tuned drums and only rarely employing the sustaining pedal. Not only is this style aggressively percussive, but Monk’s unorthodox fingering made it difficult for him to execute scale-based solo passages with the smooth dexterity of a swing-era jazz pianist like Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson. This seeming clumsiness was, however, a conscious choice on his part, for live recordings made at Minton’s in 1941 prove that he had once played in a conventionally fluent manner. His mature style, as rehearsal tapes reveal, was carefully worked out, just as his compositions were no less carefully notated.
All this points to why it took so long for Monk to win wider acceptance as an artist. Unlike Dizzy Gillespie, a natural-born entertainer who went out of his way to make his musical innovations palatable to a popular audience, Monk was a mid-century modernist par excellence, unafraid to be difficult and certain that the world would someday catch up with him. “My time for fame will come,” he told an interviewer in 1948. And so it did—but not in the way that he expected.
As early as 1948, a reporter for PM, working from a press release written by the wife of Monk’s record producer, called him “erratic” and “uncommunicative,” suggesting he was already experiencing the mood swings from which he suffered for the rest of his life:
Monk seldom sleeps more than five hours a day and has occasionally gone as long as three days without any sleep at all.?.?.?.?At the end of one of these periods, Monk is so exhausted that he is likely to sleep straight through three days.
From then on, most of the stories published about Monk made mention of his strange behavior. Monk himself insisted that his personal eccentricities were as purposeful as his playing. “Sometimes it’s to your advantage for people to think you’re crazy,” he told an interview. But after his death in 1982, those who knew him best described his conduct in terms indicating that it amounted to more than mere eccentricity. Thelonious Monk Jr., his son, spoke of the pianist’s cycles of “depression and euphoria,” recalling times when “you look your father in the eye and you know that he doesn’t exactly know who you are.”
In Thelonious Monk, Kelley discloses that from 1957 on, Monk underwent numerous periods of incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. Psychiatry was a decidedly inexact science in the 50s and 60s, and it was not uncommon for black men who, like Monk, had experienced hostile encounters with the police to be institutionalized. But mental illness ran in Monk’s family—his father spent the last part of his life in an asylum—and while the stresses of his personal and professional life must have contributed to his idiosyncrasies, it also appears that he may have suffered from an organic mental disorder whose symptoms were exacerbated by his abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs.
In 1959, Monk began to see a quack psychiatrist who put him on Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer used in the treatment of psychosis, accompanied by “vitamin shots” that also contained amphetamines. The combination was a dangerous one, and thereafter his behavior grew increasingly and at times alarmingly erratic. In 1973 he lapsed into a protracted depression and sharply curtailed his public appearances, playing his last concert in 1976, five years before his death.
So does Monk’s mental instability somehow “explain” his music? Not for the most part. It is true that he composed far less after 1957 and that his playing ultimately grew repetitive to the point of tiresomeness, in part because of his deteriorating mental condition but also because he chose to play his best-known tunes over and over again instead of expanding his repertoire. By that time, though, his major phase as an artist was long over, and his reputation would now be essentially no different had he died years earlier.
That reputation, while solidly based, is also easy to misconstrue. In 2006, for instance, Monk was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for having produced “a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz.” This citation ignores the fact that his main body of written work consists of around two dozen melodies composed between 1941 and 1957, scarcely more than half of which have ever been played with any regularity by other musicians. Compared with Duke Ellington, who produced some 1,500-odd pieces ranging in scope from popular songs to large-scale multi-movement instrumental works, Monk can scarcely be considered a “composer” at all.
Like most jazz musicians who write their own material, Monk is better understood as an improvising musician than as a composer—but one whose best performances have a structural unity that is compositional in its total effect. The reason for this unity is that Monk, harking back to such older jazzmen as Louis Armstrong, preferred to improvise on the melodies of the songs he played rather than on their underlying chord progressions. “Play the melody!” he told one of his musicians in 1960. “Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, or play off the rhythm of the melody, never mind the so-called chord changes.”
Yet Monk’s old-fashioned attitude toward melody (which is especially evident in such unsentimental yet poignant ballads as “Ask Me Now” and “Monk’s Mood”) did not make his music any more accessible to lay listeners. Once the réclame arising from his appearance in Time wore off, he became once again what he had always been, an unabashedly difficult modernist. He shared that attitude with many other members of his generation of jazz musicians, who saw themselves as artists rather than entertainers, and whose attitude would come to be generally embraced by succeeding generations of jazzmen. Well into the 50s, jazz had been a genuinely popular music, a utilitarian, song-based idiom to which ordinary people could dance if they felt like it. But by the 60s, it had evolved into a challenging concert music whose complexities repelled many of the same youngsters who were now listening to rock, and Monk was one of the musicians chiefly responsible for that change.
It is here, I suspect, that Thelonious Monk’s long-lasting reputation as a “mad genius” is most relevant today. His public image, like that of such other prominent beboppers as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell—both of whom, like Monk, also spent time in mental institutions—was as off-putting to the average layman as his music. In this respect, he was no less a high modernist than Robert Lowell, Jackson Pollock, or any of the other artists whose self-destructive behavior and widely publicized struggles with mental illness were to become intimately bound up with the general perception of modern art.
For my part, I treasure Monk’s tough-minded, unabashedly unpopular artistry, both as a composer and as a pianist, in much the same way that I respond to Pollock’s abstract-expressionist paintings. But I also know that something important and irreplaceable was lost when the serious yet accessible music of Armstrong and his fellow musician-entertainers was transplanted from the dance floor to the concert hall, there to become a species of high art. And while I think it unlikely that Monk’s mental problems did anything to shape the music that he wrote in his peak years, I have no doubt that they made it harder for him to bridge the gap between artist and audience—a gap that had already been widened by the coming of modernism, and whose continuing existence is arguably the greatest problem facing the jazz musicians of today.
1 Monk’s key recordings are included in Monk’s Moods (Proper, four CDs), an imported box set available from Amazon that contains his first recorded performances of all of the compositions mentioned in this essay.
2 Free Press, 588 pages, $30