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A Literary Look at ‘the Other Monk’

A Literary Look at ‘the Other Monk’
USC College professor Robin D. G. Kelley plays a Thelonious Monk composition on the piano at the Friends of the USC Libraries Literary Luncheon.

USC College professor Robin D. G. Kelley spoke about jazz legend Thelonious Monk at the Friends of the USC Libraries Literary Luncheon on Sept. 30 in Doheny Memorial Library.

Kelley is the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), the most comprehensive biography yet written about the legendary jazz musician.

Based on 14 years of extensive research, Kelley’s book is a testament to the value of research-based scholarship that the USC Libraries exist to support.

To tell the story of Monk’s life as a “family man,” Kelley tracked down home recordings of jams and practice sessions, pored over papers and personal archives, and spoke to every one of the artist’s surviving family members.

Also intending the book as an exposé of the business side of jazz music, Kelley “followed the money trail” of Monk’s producer Teo Macero, examining contracts, ledgers and other business records archived at the New York Public Library.

Throughout the luncheon, attendees were treated to a special performance of Monk’s works by USC Thornton School of Music students. Kelley himself provided some musical entertainment as well, reciting one of Monk’s compositions on an electric keyboard.

A pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) is “often seen as a kind of eccentric, strange character,” said Kelley, who instead wanted to focus on “the other Monk, who is not so eccentric, not so strange.”

Monk often wore the public image of an artist unconcerned with commercial success, for instance. In fact, Kelley said, while “the world wasn’t ready for his notion of what makes great music, Monk really wanted to get a hit.”

To prove his point, Kelley played a 1948 recording of “Especially to You,” a ballad Monk wrote and recorded with crooner Frank Paccione specifically to garner radio airtime.

The song’s title and lyrics were an overt reference to the famous sign-off phrase used by Martin Block, a nationally syndicated radio disc jockey: “Goodnight to you, and to you, and especially to you.” Despite the appeal to Block, the record was unsuccessful – perhaps, Kelley suggested, because of the odd pairing of Monk’s dissonant piano backing with Paccione’s Sinatra-esque voice.

Debunking myths about Monk required Kelley to paint a full picture of the artist and the man, and throughout his lecture Kelley often returned to the parallel love stories running through Monk’s life: his love of music and his love for, and dependence on, his family.

“He was completely committed to his extended family, and they to him, and if you read the book, there are so many stories about how his family came through for him when he needed them,” Kelley said.

Kelley shared one story that many of Monk’s family members repeated throughout his research for the book. Monk would take his nieces and nephews to the Five Spot Café, a jazz venue that Monk helped make famous, and introduce them to other jazz legends “as if those musicians needed to know his nieces and nephews.”

“So he’d say, ‘Coltrane, Coltrane, come over here! This is my niece Jackie. You need to know who she is.’ His whole thing was that they’re the ones who were important,” Kelley explained. “He never said, ‘You need to know who John Coltrane is.’ ”

The event was hosted by the Friends of the USC Libraries, who advance the mission of the USC Libraries by contributing to the libraries’ collections, learning spaces, technologies and initiatives. The Friends host two literary luncheons each year. Reflecting the libraries’ multidisciplinary approach, these luncheons showcase authors of recently published books from a wide range of subjects and genres, ranging from literary fiction to history and music.

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