Mental health matters new biography looks at thelonious monk’s music and mental health opinion gas hydrates are used


Monk’s angular melodies and dissonant harmonies sounded so strange to contemporary ears that critics tended to create an "art brut" persona for Monk. They saw him as springing onto to the scene unschooled and thus uncontaminated by traditional Western musical forms. Not surprisingly, the portrait of Monk as some kind of musical feral child was inaccurate. He was fully conversant in classical music and enjoyed Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Bartok, Chopin – especially as refracted through his piano contemporary Vladimir Horowitz.

Monk’s behavior added to the public perception of his oddity. He loved strange hats and for years performed in them. He tended to get up from his piano and dance during the solos of his band mates. He was chronically late for gigs. He loved to drink, he smoked marijuana regularly and occasionally used harder drugs. He was famous for staying up for days in a row, searching for a friend with a piano or just walking the streets. He frequently appeared to fall asleep at the keyboard. Sometimes, he would go weeks without speaking, once never talking to his fellow musicians on a European tour.

"Although it took nearly two more decades before doctors would correctly diagnose Monk as bipolar, he had begun to exhibit classic symptoms of the disorder … that would occur more frequently in the years to come," writes Kelley about Monk’s illness during the late 1950s. The symptoms – alternating states of mania and depression – had begun in the early 1940s when Monk was in his 20’s. Heredity likely played a role in Monk’s illness. His father, who exhibited similar symptoms, died in a state mental institution in North Carolina after years as a resident.

Kelley sides with a growing body of literature that challenges the notion that creativity springs from travails of mental illness and addiction. Monk himself objected to portraits that rooted his art in insanity – or dismissed it for the same reason.

Monk’s extraordinary songs often bear everyday titles. On "Underground," the 1968 record that turned me onto Monk, you can find a song called "In Walked Bud," named for his good friend and piano player Bud Powell. "Boo-Boo’s Birthday" uses his daughter’s nickname. Monk named "Green Chimneys" for Boo-Boo’s school and played the tune at a fundraiser for school. On "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. I," which I’m listening to as I write, you’ll find a song named for Monk’s first love, Rubie Richardson, and one called "Evonce," slang for marijuana, by early band mates Idrees Sulieman and Ike Quebec.

"Whether or not Monk produced his best work during a ‘manic phase’" – and there is plenty of evidence that Monk produced stellar work even while depressed – "is less important than the overall impact his illness had on his ability to work and social relationships," Kelley writes. "The fact is, his bipolar disorder often made it difficult to work, lost him jobs, and put undue stress on his family – especially (his wife) Nellie. For someone so family-oriented who did not begin to make a decent living until he was over 40, there is nothing romantic or desirable about playing the tortured artist."

Having a disease of the brain in the 1940s and 1950s meant fighting an uphill battle. Stigma was ferocious. The New York City police officer, for example, who first committed Monk to a psychiatric hospital following a traffic accident, left a note on Monk’s car, "Psycho taken to Bellevue" – and never informed his wife. The treatments du jour for mental illness were lock-up, electro-shock therapy – which did not help Monk – and the first blunt wave of psycho- pharmacology, which would revolutionize mental health treatment in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Very few psychiatrists, let alone lay people, understood the causes and nature of bipolar disorder at the time, so it is not surprising that musicians, fans and especially journalists interpreted Monk’s behaviors as quirky personality traits or evidence of eccentricity," Kelley writes. "The jazz club was a veritable health hazard: Alcohol was not only the clubs’ primary commodity and raison d’être, but club owners often encouraged musicians to ‘run a tab,’ which was then deducted from the night’s pay. Narcotics and other illegal drugs were readily available."

In other words, jazz musicians who happened have mental illnesses found it easy to self-medicate with drinks and drugs, exacerbating their illnesses. They would have been better off to skip the cocktails, speed and heroin, and instead use their art – their beautifully complex compositions and dizzying performances – as their elixirs, much as jazz fans do today.