David Yaffe @ The Nation - "You know people have tried to put me off as being crazy," said Thelonious Sphere Monk. "Sometimes it's to your advantage for people to think you're crazy." He ought to have known. Monk was one of only a few jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine (others include Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis) and was celebrated as a genius by everyone who mattered. Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins could not have imagined (or transmuted) the language of jazz without him. Yet the pianist was also constantly underpaid and underappreciated, rejected as too weird on his way up and dismissed as old hat once he made his improbable climb. Performer and composer, eccentric and original, Monk was shrouded in mystery throughout his life. Not an especially loquacious artist (at least with journalists), he left most of his expression in his inimitable work, as stunning and unique as anyone's in jazz--second only to Duke Ellington's and perched alongside Charles Mingus's.
He did leave a paper trail, though, and Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive, necessary and, as of now, definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original offers a Baedeker of sorts. Jazz may be filled with fascinating characters, but it has inspired relatively few exemplary full-length biographies. Read more.