Friday, December 25, 2009

New Reading

It is very rare that I read a book shortly after it appears. Much of my reading tends to follow up a book I have been reading with books cited by that book's author; so my reading habits tend towards the past, rather than the present. Every now and then, however, I get caught up in the present; and in this case I find myself launching into a book that has been on quite a few Christmas recommendation lists.

The book in question is Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley. I actually got into this situation because Kelley came to City Lights to give a reading several months ago. Finding him in his own, I introduced myself and gave him my card. I explained that, while my "beat" was classical music, I felt that Monk was important enough to be part of any serious listener's experiences, even if that listener felt happiest in the nineteenth century. Kelley then pulled out one of the opening anecdotes in his book about Monk rattling off a composition by Frédéric Chopin "at breakneck speed" (in the words of the "Prelude" to his book). So I mentioned that I was at liberty to review books, as well as musical performances, on; and, the next thing I knew, a copy of the book had arrived in the mail.

In my conversation with Kelley, I explained to him that I was currently involved with another project, not mentioning that the project was not a brand-new book but, rather, Arthur Loesser's Men, Women, and Pianos. Regular readers know that this book occupied me for quite some time; and I finished it only last week, after which I was more than ready to jump into Kelley's book. This one is also likely to consumer a healthy chunk of my time. This is very much a scholarly endeavor. The wealth of footnotes makes clear the scope of resources that Kelley summoned and the depth with which he penetrated those resources. Looking at his list of previous books, it is clear that he shares with Loesser an interest in social history; but he is far advanced beyond Loesser's dilettantism. This may leave those who want to jump straight into the jazz wondering why so many pages were invested in a first chapter that traces Monk's ancestry back to slaves in North Carolina, but this sets a context as relevant as the one set by Albert Schweitzer when he began his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach with a survey of the evolution of sacred music and the influence of the Reformation.

Equally important is that any interest I have in serious listening experiences extends to refining my own experiences with Monk recordings. I never purchased any vinyl recordings of Monk because, quite honestly, I did not know where to begin. I was fortunate enough to hear him play several times at the Village Vanguard; but, while I was fascinated with what I heard, I was far too perplexed to begin to really listen, rather than just receiving these bizarre auditory stimuli. It was only when Riverside released their 15-CD anthology that I felt ready to approach Monk as more than as casual listener (as if one could ever be casual about a Monk performance). From that first commitment I could then move to the Blue Note and Prestige anthologies, as well as a variety of single-disc offerings. With Kelley's book, however, I now have the motivation to move from my past synchronic approach to listening (considering each track on its own terms) to a more diachronic one (embedding each track in its proper historical context).

Finally, I was drawn to this book for the very reason that Kelley felt made it worth writing. In his City Lights talk, he emphasized that his intention was to write about Monk as a working musician, rather than a jazz icon. His opening pages make clear just how extensive was the mythology that grew up around Monk, a mythology that, for example, would have nothing to do with Monk having any interest in Chopin. However, I have used this platform to address the proposition that performing musicians have work practices just like anyone else who is committed to a particular area of work. Having tried to study the work practices of other musicians through a variety of sources, I felt it was time to apply the same kind of investigation to Monk.

This book is likely to take a fair amount of my time. That will include time spent marking up the pages and then transcribing those annotations into more coherent form. Beyond that systematic approach that I take to any book, however, there are those "flashes of insight" that may come while reading or while listening to Monk's sides, which I need to document for the benefit of my own failing memory. It is thus likely that I shall use subsequent posts as a "laboratory notebook" for the task I have now set for myself. Hopefully, those "laboratory notes" will eventually be as useful to anyone undertaking to listen to Monk as they will be to my understanding my own listening experiences.

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