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New Monk bio in progress by Robin Kelley

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Michael Fitzgerald and anybody else on the Coltrane list already know about this, but Robin D.G. Kelley, who wrote a fantastic book on African-American Communists in Alabama during the Depression entitled HAMMER AND HOE is at work on a biography of Thelonious Monk. Evidently he's been given great access to Monk's estate; this is the press release that was posted on the JC list:

"Award-winning author and scholar Robin D. G. Kelley, who has been


unprecedented access to the Thelonious Monk estate to write a biography


the legendary jazz musician, will visit Duke University's Center for

Documentary Studies (CDS) to conduct research and deliver a public

presentation, "Misterioso: In Search of Thelonious Monk," on August 26,

at 7

p.m. While at CDS, Kelley will be exploring the nature of Monk's

presence in

the jazz loft recordings of photographer W. Eugene Smith, which are

part of

an extensive ongoing research and oral history project at CDS.

In 1957 Smith moved into a loft building in Manhattan's flower

district, a

building that became a legendary haunt of such jazz musicians as


Monk, Zoot Sims, and Roland Kirk, along with countless underground


For seven years, Smith documented the scene -- both inside the building


through the windows -- with many thousands of photographs, and he wired


building like a studio and made nearly one thousand hours of stereo

audiotape of the music sessions, none of which had been seen or heard

publicly until recently. Smith's recordings capture the famously


Monk scoring charts and talking about his music with collaborator Hall

Overton, who was also a resident in the loft building. Monk also held


band rehearsals in the loft."

Robin did not discuss the Smith tapes, so I don't know whether any of


captured Coltrane (although, I intend to find out, and will report


However, Robin said that he has been given access to Monk family tapes,

which include three performances from the Five Spot, July 1957.  These


the only known recordings of that legendary gig with Coltrane, and


"Nutty," "Ruby, My Dear," and one other track, the name of which Robin

couldn't recall.  He said that the Monk family intends to release these

recordings on it's own Thelonious label.  Robin said that at this early

date, Coltrane is clearly struggling with the compositions.

Most of the Monk family tapes are home recordings, made by Nellie. 

Many of

these consist of Monk working out his approach to a single tune,


similar in manner to the 25 minute rehearsal of "Round Midnight" on

Thelonious Himself.  Robin played portions of an 84 minute tape of Monk

playing "Getting Sentimental Over You" over and over again, gradually

distilling his conception.  Robin said that often on these tapes Monk

initially plays tunes fairly straight, then slowly introduces his

rubato and

substitutions.  Robin intends to include a cd of selections with his


which he has yet to complete.

One home recording includes a performance of "All God's Children Got

Rhythm," which Robin discovered Monk was playing from an arrangement


by Mary Lou Williams.  He said Williams and Monk were close; and that


Williams and Bud Powell once shared an apartment and a single piano. 


said that some compositions in Monk's hand can be found among Mary Lou

Williams' papers in Duke's manuscript collection.  He also demonstrated


Monk borrowed "Rhythm 'n' ing" from a Mary Lou composition (which then


circulated and was played under various titles by Al Haig, Charlie


and others, long before Monk recorded it).

Man, I'd love to hear those tapes!

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I think the Getting Sentimental tape is what was issued as "Monk - The Transformer" on Thelonious Records, so at least that is available now.

The Smith tapes are interesting - some of them are labeled with comments like "Monk danced but did not play at this rehearsal." The bulk of the Monk stuff is big band rehearsals - for the 1959 Town Hall concert, for the 1963 Philharmonic Hall concert, and for the 1964 Carnegie Hall concert. There's also a broadcast of an interview/demonstration that Hall Overton did with the Monk quartet at The New School in 1963.


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  • 2 years later...

Hmmm, a disc of previously unreleased Monk sounds like a good way to promote sales of the book. ;)

Seriously, I am very happy to hear about this book. Several Monk biographies have appeared in recent years, but none of them are close the being THE biography that we all need.

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Bertrand--if you're referring to my post, I wouldn't call it "news." It really is hearsay, but supposedly certain events have made further progression very difficult. We may still ultimately see a book from PK...there are probably folks here much more in the know than I am as to whether or not PK's bio will ever come out.

Speaking of bios, I still have high hopes that we'll eventually see Peter Pullman's book on Bud Powell.

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The Powell book will see the light of day, I guarantee it. Pullman is a meticulous researcher who leaves no stone unturned. He's dug up so much it's mind-boggling. These things take time.

I'd rather wait 15 years for a comprehensive Bud book then get something tossed together in 2 years like Footprints.


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Bertrand -- you're right. I meant to say Kelley's "Miles as pimp" piece.

About Pullman's Powell biography, I pretty knew much know where in the process it is now, and I know for sure at which publishing firm (a very good university press), and I have much confidence and every hope that it will emerge. Based on the parts I've seen, it will be a superb book.

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  • 3 years later...


The book showed up in my office mail today, and while I am presently overwhelmed with deadlines and can't dive into it at the moment, I did take a few minutes to flip through a couple pages and it looks like a monumental piece of scholarship. The specific details about Monk's mental illness and medical treatment in his later years that I happened upon were revelatory. I have no idea about the interpretive thrust of the portrait, depth of musical analysis or any other big picture issues, but if the facts relating to all periods of Monk's life and career are as exhaustive as the quick snapshot that I saw, then this promises to be a landmark.

Edited by Mark Stryker
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When you have a chance to look at this more carefully, could you keep an eye out to see if there is any mention of the copyright deposits at the Library of Congress? I know RK looked at these, but I was not with him that day so I don't know if he saw anything interesting.

Of course, this question applies to anyone who receives their copy soon.

I plan to buy this, but cheapo that I am, I will wait until I can get a 40% Borders' coupon or get it at Daedalus. I'm not in a hurry - Monk ain't going anywhere :)


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