Every day for almost a year, Robin D. G. Kelley dug through junk to find a man.
In a storage facility stacked to the ceiling with overflowing bags and boxes, Kelley donned a dust mask and spent hours sorting through the discarded belongings of Thelonious Monk.
“I was like an archaeologist, digging through this stuff,” Kelley said. “There was dust everywhere, there were mice. It was terrible.”
For Kelley, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history at USC College, non-library research methods aren’t unusual, but this experience was certainly something else.
Rummaging through the storage facility was just one aspect of Kelley’s research process for his book about Monk, an American jazz pianist and composer best known to the public for both his unique musical style and eccentric personality.
In his new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), Kelley aims to “correct the record” and tell the true story of Monk, the life of a musical genius, without the myths and rumors surrounding his public persona.
The book was finally published in October after 14 years inside its creator’s head. For Kelley, this book is not just a project, but a life-long fascination.
Kelley, who has played the piano for decades, was introduced to Monk’s music when he was a teenager, and that first impression has stuck with him. “I’d never heard anything like it,” he said. “Monk has a sound that is so jarring and humorous. He was just this spectacular figure.”
When Kelley first decided to write about Monk, he thought he would focus on Monk’s status as an icon and the myths that surround him. “If you read anything about Monk, writers tend to describe his behavior before they say anything about his music,” Kelley explained.
But as he began to delve deeper, he realized that the man himself was more captivating than the public’s perception of him. “And then it suddenly got infinitely more interesting, because it became no longer a story about an eccentric artist or his craft, but it became a life story,” Kelley said.
The story developed into a narrative about the life of the pianist: his family, his community, his friends. As Kelley says, “it takes a village to raise a Monk.”
Kelley was fortunate to have the support of the Monk family. At first, they were hesitant about Kelley’s exploration into the life of their patriarch. And yet after finally meeting in person with Kelley, who at this point had been writing the book on his own for several years, they changed their minds. “They were convinced that I not only knew my stuff, but that I cared enough about the subject to tell the truth,” Kelley said.
It was then that the family gave Kelley something that was unprecedented — complete access to the family papers and materials. This is where the storage facility came into play.
In the midst of the dust, mice and stacks of trash, Kelley discovered treasure. Buried in the facility he found everything from everyday items to musical artifacts: photographs, receipts from London hotels, medical bills, Monk’s silk smoking jacket, reel-to-reel rehearsal recordings, and music written in Monk’s own hand.
Kelley found and documented so much history — in the storage facility, in his 200 interviews with Monk’s family and friends, and during his years of research — that not everything fit in the book. Kelley created a Web site, www.monkbook.com, where he is posting sessionographies, videos, photographs, and other information that he collected during the last 14 years.
The book was released on October 6, 2009, four days before Monk’s birthday. After a book tour, Kelley will travel to Oxford University to serve a year-long appointment as the Harmsworth Professor of American History, the first African American to ever hold the position. While there, he will be present on campus as an American history expert from the United States, co-leading seminars and giving guest lectures in various courses.
Kelley is also working on several other books, including Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2010) and a book he co-edited with the late Franklin Rosemont, Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (University of Texas Press, December 2009). Altogether, Kelley has published eight books.
There are many reasons that his book on Monk, however, stands out from others he has, and will, publish. “When I first started playing his music, I was 17,” Kelley said. “So basically I’ve been living with this man in my head for 30 years. I’ve spent half of that time trying to tell his story.”
“It’s unlike any project I have ever done,” Kelley continued. “When I finished the last chapter and sent it off, I wept. I can’t say that about any other books I’ve written.”
“Of all the books, this is the one that matters.”
Read The New York Times book reviews of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original: