Robin D.G. Kelley is Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California. His Monk biography was published by Free Press in November 2009.
LS: Most people are surprised to hear that Monk had bipolar disorder---perhaps they remember that he was thought to be "Mad Monk", but they don't associate the bipolar diagnosis with him or his life. Why do you think this is?
RK: The media portrayals of Monk we've inherited from critics and fans have a lot to do with the particular way he's been remembered as "mad" or "crazy." Of course, Monk himself contributed to this image with his performance style - both on and off stage. He liked to entertain, to clown, to do the unusual, and he was often quite conscious and deliberate. But his illness had different manifestations and those behaviors were often conflated with his performance. The symptoms of bipolar disorder were often buried beneath so many other unusual behaviors. On the other hand, critics and fans who wanted to rescue him from the Mad Monk label went the other direction, insisting that there was nothing wrong, and this is just "how he is." There has also been quite a bit of speculation about Monk's mental illness, some suggesting he had Turrets syndrome, others insisting he was autistic. My knowledge comes from the family and limited medical records available to me.
LS: As a historian, how did you tease out mental illness from addiction and from his essential rebel nature?
RK: This was difficult. First, I had to put Thelonious Monk in context as a struggling black male artist in a racist society during a dynamic era of black social movement, the toppling of formal segregation, and dramatic shifts in the political and cultural landscape. Some of Monk's actions were rebellious, some were quite conservative in light of new political and artistic directions. Addiction was an issue and it's far too complicated to discuss it here, but I did read as much as I could about bipolar disorder and learned that some people who suffer from the disease are prone to drug and alcohol addiction as a way of coping with chemical imbalances. For Monk, I think this may have been the case (though he drank regularly up until his late 50s when he gave up alcohol, and used drugs intermittently, it is hard to describe him as an addict). The evidence I found suggest that his most significant problem was poor medical care and the fact that he had a doctor administering amphetamines in the guise of "vitamin shots" while he was taking quite a bit of Thorazine. The combination only worsened his condition. (And let me add that I benefited from the expert advice and insight of Nellie's cousin, Dr. Anna Lou Smith, a respected psychiatrist in Los Angeles and pioneer of the community mental health movement who not only knew Monk pretty well but intervened a few times in his care. She knew exactly what he was taking and when and the side effects it had, not to mention the kind of treatment he received in the late 1950s when he made a few trips to Los Angeles.)
The short answer to the question is "evidence" (to quote a Monk song!) I tried not to speculate much and look at a combination of factors and sources. I don't know if I got everything right, but I tried to do two essential things: 1) show that Monk's ups and downs were episodic rather than a constant condition. Most of the time Monk was stable, and those difficult moments sometimes only occurred twice or three times a year. 2) I tried to remove the stigma from bipolar disorder and disentangle it from representations of him as being "crazy."
LS: You're careful not to romanticize mental illness, to show what his episodes took from his life and work. But could Monk had been Monk without it? Did it contribute to his life and work as well?
RK: This is the critical debate among biographers and historians who write about artists who have bipolar disorder. I come down on the side that it did not enhance or enrich his work or gave him unique vision he would not have had otherwise. I think he still would have been "Monk" and, in fact, may have been more prolific in terms of his compositions. Even his antics (which have often been used to define him), I believe, were crafted or spontaneous manifestations of his wit, not outcomes of the disease. However, I do think the kind of meds he received matter more. Thorazine made his fingers stiff and it was often a struggle for him. When he finally received lithium treatments, evidence suggests it deadened his creative drive (though it might have already diminished) and contributed to his decision to stop playing, though it successfully stabilized him. Most importantly, his approach to playing and composition were products of unceasing study and practice. He had a way of playing and writing that was labored over and I see no evidence that his manic phases contributed.
LS: Monk's career and financial instability---how typical was this of jazz greats of his time, and how much was it symptomatic of a disordered mind?
RK: I would say Monk's financial instability was pretty typical of most jazz musicians then because of institutional factors in the industry. Part of what I hoped to demonstrate in the book was just how difficult it was to make any money when musicians were so grossly underpaid, overworked, and exploited. Monk actually did better than most, though he should have made a lot more money. What is interesting, however, is that Nellie, his wife, was the person who handled the finances in the house-Monk just handed over the checks. Now she may not have had a disordered mind, but she was incredibly overwhelmed at times and the disorder of her life was evident!
LS: How did Nellie Monk understand her husband's mercurial mind? Did she see the psychiatric dimensions with any detachment, or was she continuously carried along on the roller coaster?
RK: think both were true. She recognized her husband's genius as well as his difference and though she suffered because of it, she always emphasized to her kids that their father was special and they need to accept him and support him. It's also important to remember that they had more good times, more laughs and calm moments than difficult times. On the other hand, it was a roller coaster during certain moments, though it was exacerbated by race. What do I mean? When Monk did not come home or turned up missing, her first fear is whether he'd been arrested. Twice he ended up in mental institutions after disappearing, but most of the time he was incarcerated. The fact is, black male artists were more likely to see the inside of a jail cell or confront a billy club from a rogue cop than their white counterparts, and this is what Nellie was most afraid of.
LS: Monk was hospitalized how many times? And not properly diagnosed and treated until 1972. Of the many factors contributing to why it took so long, which seem the most influential to you?
RK: He was hospitalized over a dozen times, though not always for issues related to mental illness. In some cases I just don't know; other cases it was flu, virus, prostate issues, etc. The first hospitalization of which I'm aware was in December 1956 (Bellevue). Of course, between late 1956 and 1974, we witness some developments in treatment and scientific breakthroughs. This, I think, explains quite a bit about his diagnosis or lack thereof, and the kinds of meds he was prescribed. Also, his healthcare was intermittent and there were times when his doctors just were not all that knowledgeable. When his condition worsened in the 1970s, that's when there was a more concerted effort to find some alternative to the thorazine he had been taking since at least 1959. So in my view, the length of time it took to find the right diagnosis mirrors the medical profession's own struggle to figure out how to treat manic depression, let alone diagnose it. That, and the fact that like most musicians he had no medical plan with regular check ups and the like. And he was constantly working and traveling.
LS: Ultimately you've written a portrait of an innovator, "an American Original"--and this originality was what he encouraged in his students and fellow musicians, not difference for the sake of difference, but as you write, "striving for something startling and memorable, and never being afraid to make mistakes". This is ultimately a deeply mentally healthy way to be, no?
RK: Most certainly! In fact, I have argued elsewhere that what struck me about Monk was just how mentally healthy he was. Here we might make an important distinction between suffering from chemical imbalances and making very healthy decisions in one's life when one is in balance. Monk raised his children to not worry about what other people think; to do their thing on their terms, even if it doesn't bring immediate riches. I love the story in the book when he takes his five-year old son to buy shoes and allows him to choose his own style. Everyone in the family criticized Thelonious for letting a five year old pick his own shoes and Monk's response was simply, I'll make sure the size is right but these are his shoes. He's not going to dig the shoes I dig. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. He schooled his colleagues and friends on the importance of marital fidelity; loyalty in friendship; speaking the truth even if it's uncomfortable, among other things. In my view, he was a far more healthier person than, say, Miles Davis, and many other contemporaries who did NOT suffer from bipolar disorder. Indeed, I think it is interesting that Monk's music conveys joy and humor above all-there is a playfulness in all of his compositions and in the way he improvised. Monk wanted you to laugh when you heard him play, and we do.