A remarkable life story is recounted in Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley, which, as it sounds, is a seriously-intended academic biography of this important figure in the history of jazz. Born in North Carolina from a family not too-far removed from slavery, he moved to New York at a fairly early age and spent most of his life in apartments in the area now occupied by Lincoln Center.
Monk was around in the scene in the '40's when "bop" was created (indeed he often boasted that he was its creator) but some tough breaks as well as a very odd personality (which the author calls bipolar disorder) kept him from the public recognition he so richly deserved until the mid-1960's. Due to legal problems he was not able to play in clubs in New York City for most of the 1950's; indeed I was struck by the fact that until about 1957 he never really had a functioning band but would have to staff his engagements with free-lancers who often had to struggle with his unusual music (he apparently did not believe much in rehearsal). Monk's compositions--some of which are jazz classics such as "Round Midnight" and "Straight, No Chaser"-- tend to have jerky rhythms and quirky harmonies and are often best heard in recordings where the composer plays them on the piano.
Although it might not have been recognized at the time, it is possible that the high point of Monk's career came in 1957 when he got his "cabaret card" and could therefore perform legally in New York City and was engaged for the first of a few years of long-term engagements at a club known as the Five Spot. This meant that he had a regular band, and fortuitously the band included the brilliant saxophonist John Coltrane, still early in a meteoric career of his own. Here was someone who had no trouble with Monk's chords and harmonies and who would spend every spare moment working on them, practicing, working out the changes.
Miraculously, a concert this quartet gave at Carnegie Hall in 1957 was recorded by the Voice of America and has recently been released on a CD with excellent sound ("Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall"); it contains a number of Monk's signature pieces in thrilling versions (clearly Coltrane's presence energized Monk as much as playing with Monk inspired Coltrane). This is a perfect companion to the biography.
The events in the life of Thelonius Monk are often heart-breaking, and sometimes thrilling, especially when he finally is received by the public and given the recognition he had long been denied. Monk was definitely a one-off character whose story deserves to be told.
-- Jeremy Nussbaum