Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk

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9780028646565: Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk

Music/Jazz BiographyFirst English-language biography of a legendary and compelling jazz artist.Thelonious Monk was one of jazz's legendary figures, whose life story has yet to be told. Pianist and bandleader, he led the legendary jam sessions at Harlem's Minton's Playhouse where, along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he helped mold the nascent style of bebop. Monk's composition 'Round Midnight; Straight, No Chaser; Blue Monk; Misterioso; Rhythm-a-ning; and countless others have become classics in the jazz repertoire. Monk's piano playing was so unique that it has been widely emulated and praised, but never equaled. His personal life was also unique, including a long battle with depression and mental illness that finally led to his total withdrawal from recording and music making years before his tragic death. This book tells Monk's story based on first-hand interviews with the musicians who worked with him, along with the participation of his son, T.S., and other family members. It discusses both his musical and personal lives in frank detail, and illuminates one of the most important jazz player's of our time. Leslie Gourse is a well-known authority and writer on jazz. Her books have been widely praised, including Sassy: The Biography of Sarah Vaughan; Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole; and Madame Jazz. She has been awarded an ASCAP award for her journalism. Additionally, she writes regularly on jazz for both specialty journals and popular newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, Boston Globe, Jazz Times, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, New York, Cosmopolitan, and many others. She has written liner notes for many jazz labels.

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Review:

The composer, pianist, and headgear eccentric Thelonious Monk is one of the few musicians whose touch can be recognized from almost any three-second sample of his work. Who else could have dreamed up the majestic oddity of "Round Midnight" or "Well, You Needn't" or "Ruby, My Dear" or "Pannonica"? Who else could have duplicated Monk's distinctive attack at the keyboard, with its clenched harmonies and rock-skipping runs? At least one major biography has been in the works for the last 20 years, but now Leslie Gourse--who has also written books about Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole--has put together a graceful, intelligent narrative. Straight, No Chaser is notably light on musicological analysis, and the author never quite delivers on her promised revelations about Monk's final decade (during which he withdrew into both musical and verbal silence). But Gourse has done some excellent spadework, interviewing Monk's family, musical associates, and longtime manager Harry Colomby; her preliminary portrait is a fine one.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A ramshackle biography of the legendary jazz innovator. Gourse (Madame Jazz, 1995, etc.) has researched Monk's life thoroughly, interviewing his surviving family members and musical cohorts, as well as combing the archives for contemporary profiles and reviews of his work. Sadly, however, there's insufficient narrative thread here to stitch together Gourse's assemblage of quotes. Monk grew up in New York City; by 1934, when he was 16, he had dropped out of school to devote his full attention to the piano. After touring the country with a gospel group, he returned to New York and began experimenting with his uniquely personal tonal and rhythmic language, often identified as the essential ammunition of the bebop revolution. While Monk profoundly influenced Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, it wasn't until the late '50s that his seminal gigs at Manhattan's Five Spot garnered him full public recognition as a musician and composer. He was equally famous for his eccentricities: Generally late for his performances, he often left the piano and danced around the stage, letting the ever-changing members of his quartet supply the music. In private, Monk was notoriously taciturn, and occasionally he would experience episodes of complete withdrawal that required his hospitalization. Gourse entertains the idle speculations of many nonexpert acquaintances about the causes of his behavior, but the conclusion she seems to support--possible extensive use of unspecified drugs, complicated by genius--is vague. And about Monk's music the author offers silly tautologies like, ``In the aggregate, his songs comprised an oeuvre, each a commentary on his unique universe of sound.'' The book's obvious title, already used for a Monk documentary, is a perfect tipoff that Gourse has little to say about her subject that is imaginative or useful. (photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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