An American Original


For most of 2009, I was a very good boy. Instead of buying new music, I did my best to recycle from the fairly vast collection that I already had – because, of course, the more music you have, the less of it you can enjoy.

And then my frugal trend suddenly took a turn for the worse. Over the last few days, I have been totally engrossed in Robin D.G. Kelly’s new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. What a fantastic read, especially if you are a Jazz fan. The problem is that the book inspired me to fill in some of the gaps in my Monk collection, picking up

Revisiting some already in my collection, particulary,

And also getting my hands on a few rare gems by other Monk contemporaries:

  • Cootie Williams: 1941-1944 (with some of the first ever recordings of Monk compositions “Fly Right (Epistophy)” and “Round Midnight”, and with Bud Powell on piano).
  • Sahib Shihab: Jazz Sahib (with Bill Evans on piano)
  • Abbey Lincoln: Straight Ahead (with Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron, and Max Roach)
  • Pepper Adams: 10 to 4 at the Five Spot (with Donald Bird, Doug Watkins, Elvin Jones, and Bobby Timmons).

Some critics of Kelly’s work complain about inclusion of African American-centric political commentary, of which I assume they mean references to slavery and the racial violence and discrimination that occurred during Monk’s life. But it would be hard to tell the story of a Twentieth Century African American – one whose great-grandparents and grandparents had been born into slavery and, like his fellow black Jazz contemporaries had difficulty traveling freely in certain states and were often harassed by the police – and not recognize that these factors essentially shaped their lives. Ignoring them is a denial of the American experience.

In any event, the book is thoroughly enjoyable and sheds light on Monk as a family man and homebody, a generous teacher – and not the eccentric hermit he was made out to be – but someone fully focused, dedicated and unwavering in the pursuit of his own unadulterated artistic identity. Monk never changed his style, not when he was being laughed at, not when he finally achieved recognition twenty years later, and certainly not thereafter.


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Filed under Jazz, Literature

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