In the recent and definitive biography of Thelonious Monk, author Robin D.G. Kelley describes the jazz icon’s’ relationship to his wife Nellie as true love personified; something that is seemingly rare between Black folks, if you let jazz “historians” tell it. Black love, and Black women in particular, have been calculatingly omitted from the history of jazz as lovers, wives, caregivers, and backbones of the art form. Mrs. Monk is no exception…that is until now. In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley seems to purposely set out to straighten the record. “There would be no Thelonious Monk without Nellie,” he plainly stated in our recent conversation. “That is the most important fact I took away from the decade and a half I spent working on Monk’s biography.”
In Thelonious Monk, Kelley debunks, and clarifies several myths that have been perpetuated about Monk, his music, his mental condition, and his capabilities as a musician. But perhaps most intriguing is the amount of care and depth he takes in re-introducing Nellie Monk to the history of jazz. Further, describing Thelonious as a “committed father and family man”, Kelley expounds upon the nature of their relationship which included a romance of over forty years, marriage, children, family and one of the most unique bonds in jazz.
I could not have been happier and more thankful for Kelley’s emendation. While the media and implausible journalism have gone above and beyond to place Mrs. Monk in the shadows of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, (“Jazz Baroness” and close friend of the Monks), Kelley deflates the fantasy that Thelonious and Pannonica were ever romantically involved or that she was a savior or sorts. “I still find it curious that writers and critics devote so much ink to the support Monk enjoyed from the Baroness and yet barely mention Nellie.”
It is my feeling that we can chalk this attempt and so many others up to America’s incessant need to display the relationship between Blacks as anything but coherent, most devastatingly, on the subject of love and romance between man and woman. Throughout history, we have seen Black men forced to fight to legitimize not only their own manhood, but also their love for their women. In music, we see one of the greatest examples of this in Miles Davis’ beautifully audacious move to insist that the women who would grace his album covers be Black, in a time where Black women were not only fighting to be a recognized standard of beauty, but also fighting against a stigma that said they were not even desired by their own men, but second best to White women. However, it is clear that Thelonious not only adored Nellie, but if we let the music speak, he certainly thought highly of Black women, and cherished his family. In addition to “Crepuscule With Nellie”, his love ballad to his wife, Thelonious endeared his music to his sister-in-law, niece, and daughter with tunes like “Skippy”, “Jackie-ing” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday”.
Overall, the lack of Black female presence in jazz is still a problem today. The purposeful divide that puts Black women in a precarious position to defend their role is still evident. Other than the images of entertainer or addict, Black women are not well documented in the overall jazz landscape. Any role of power or leadership is almost always attempted to be obliterated from the fabric of America’s original art. But they were there, and many of jazz music’s biggest names would not be, without these unsung heroines. “She was so much more than a ‘helpmate’ or ‘backbone’ or any of the other adjectives often bandied about to describe Nellie,” Kelley proclaims. “Besides being an incredibly supportive wife and devoted mother, she was his very best friend, at times his business manager, road manager, accountant, breadwinner, critic, sage, confidant, nurse, protector, and lover, among other things. I’m convinced that theirs was one of the great romances in jazz; unlike the stereotypical image of Nellie as the submissive helpmate. She was Monk’s equal with a mind of her own and aspirations to match.”
This public and purposeful correction about Mrs. Monk is such a prolific stride in Black history, because it informs the much larger issue of the importance of Black women in America. It also proves the importance of having a broader spectrum of historians writing about jazz. (But that’s a topic for another post – and will be).
Thanks Dr. Kelley. Finally, another deserving Black woman has emerged a hero.