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October 18, 2009

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Born to play piano

DURING the first half of his junior year at Stuyvesant High School in New York, Thelonious Monk, the great American jazz artist, showed up in class only 16 out of 92 days and received zeros in every one of his subjects.

His mother, Barbara Monk, would not have been pleased. She had brought her three children to New York from North Carolina, effectively leaving behind her husband, who suffered bad health, and raising the family on her own in order that they might receive a proper education.

But Mrs Monk, like a succession of canny, tough-minded, loving and very indulgent women in Thelonious Monk's life, understood that her middle child had a large gift and was put on this earth to play piano. Presently, her son was off on a two-year musical tour of the United States, playing a kind of sanctified R&B piano in the employ, with the rest of his small band, of a traveling woman evangelist.

The brilliant pianist Mary Lou Williams, seven years Monk's senior and working at the time for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy orchestra, heard Monk play at a late-night jam session in Kansas City in 1935. Monk, born in 1917, would have been 18 or so at the time.

Williams would later claim that even as a teenager, Monk "really used to blow on piano ... He was one of the original modernists all right, playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he's playing now."

It was those harmonies - with their radical, often dissonant chord voicings, along with the complex rhythms, "misplaced" accents, startling shifts in dynamics, hesitations and silences - that, even in embryonic form, Williams was hearing for the first time. It's an angular, splintered sound, percussive in attack and asymmetrical, music that always manages to swing hard and respect the melody.

Thelonious Monk's body of work, as composer and player (the jazz critic Whitney Balliett called Monk's compositions "frozen ... improvisations" and his improvisations "molten ... compositions"), sits as comfortably beside Bartok's Hungarian folk-influenced compositions for solo piano as it does beside the music of jazz giants like James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington.

It's unclear how much of Bartok he listened to. Monk did know well and play Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Chopin.

Robin D. G. Kelley, in his extraordinary and heroically detailed new biography, "Thelonious Monk," makes a large point time and time again that Monk was no primitive, as so many have characterized him. At the age of 11, he was taught by Simon Wolf, an Austrian emigre who had studied under the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. Wolf told the parent of another student, after not too many sessions with young Thelonious: "I don't think there will be anything I can teach him. He will go beyond me very soon."

Throughout the book, Kelley plays down Monk's "weirdness," or at least contextualizes it. But Monk did little to discourage the popular view of him as odd. Always a sharp dresser and stickler for just the right look, he also favored a wide array of unconventional headgear: astrakhan, Japanese skullcap, Stetson, tam-o'-shanter. He had a trickster sense of humor, in life and in music, and he loved keeping people off-balance in both realms.

Kelley knows music, especially Monk's music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are handled expertly. The familiar episodes of Monk's career are all well covered and the family appears to have shared private material with Kelley that had hitherto been unavailable. Their trust is not misplaced.


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