Thelonius Monk: What does biography do?

October 19, 1997|By Richard M. Sudhalter | Richard M. Sudhalter,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Straight, No Chaser," by Leslie Gourse. Illustrated. Schirmer Books. 368 pages. $30.

Jazz musicians, almost alone among performing artists, have had consistently bad luck with their biographers. Where those ,, who chronicle the lives of conductors and ballerinas, pointillists and prima donnas, bring often telling hands-on experience to the task, jazz artists seem ever at the mercy of what they themselves call "the civilians."

This is lamentably true of "Straight, No Chaser," a new biography Thelonious Monk. One of the most challenging and enigmatic figures produced by a century of jazz, the pianist-composer, who died in 1982, demands much of a biographer, above all deep knowledge of the mechanics of music-making, including the specifics of pianism. The writer also must understand the historical context in which Monk's creativity has meaning.

Leslie Gourse displays none of these attributes. Author of several numbingly superficial books on such figures as Nat "King" Cole and Sarah Vaughan, and of an error-riddled survey of women in jazz, Gourse does her latest subject comparable disservice.

She has apparently read press clippings (which she quotes almost to distraction), interviewed family members, musicians and friends, perhaps even listened to a few records. But the result is little more than a procession of anecdotes, rendered in a style best described as turgidly sophomoric.

Worse, Gourse seems chronically unable to address the music. Apart from a brief disquisition on Monk's way of voicing a C7b9 chord (clearly obtained from some musician but unattributed), there is little of substance about the pianist's unique musical methods. Gourse quotes widely, but the remarks cited are unenlightening: we learn that Thelonious Monk behaved oddly, spoke little, tried various drugs, was devoted to his wife and children, took years to find a major audience, and was (in a word Gourse seems to favor but never bothers to define) "a genius."

But what of the music, in all its childlike simplicity and arcane complexity? Practically every aspect of his playing and writing defied some prevalent orthodoxy - not least those of the bebop movement with which he was so often, and erroneously, identified. As Dan Morgenstern has written somewhere, even Monk's idiosyncratic pedalling methods invite careful discussion and study.

Little more need be said about this dispensable book. But the question lingers: of what value is a biography of any artist, even one better executed than this, if it fails to deal knowledgeably with its subject's art?

Too often, as Jason Epstein put it in a recent New Yorker, the result is "as though someone who had never thought of holding a brush and had never considered the problems of color and volume had attempted a life of Czanne."

Granted, biography is in itself a craft, and good writing can carry things a long way, as in Laurence Bergreen's recent study of Louis Armstrong. But Bergreen, a non-musician, stumbled disastrously each time he tried to discuss Armstrong's playing and singing: fortunately for him, he was also dealing with a universally beloved public figure, whose humanity would have been notable even without his nonpareil artistic achievements.

The life and music of Thelonious Monk require a major biography; one, years in preparation, is reportedly nearing completion. In the meantime, interested readers are advised to bide their time, allowing "Straight, No Chaser" to find its ultimate true home on the remainder tables.

Richard M. Sudhalter has been heard as trumpet soloist on recordings, concerts and soundtracks. A UPI correspondent in Europe for 10 years, he wrote "Lost Chords" and is the principal author of "Bix: Man and Legend."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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