Sunday, February 28, 2010

Interview with Historian and Scholar Robin D. G. Kelley On Thelonious Monk, Jazz History, and the Cultural Politics of American Art

Left to Right: Thelonious Monk (in beret, ascot, and sunglasses), Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill in front of the legendary Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, NY 1947--Photograph by William Gottlieb

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley

Robin Kelley at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, November 3, 2009
(photo by Chuleenan)


All,

The following interview with Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley was conducted by myself for The Panopticon Review and is a wide ranging discussion of Dr. Kelley's extraordinary and critically acclaimed new book Thelonious Monk:
The Life and Times of An American Original (New Press, 2009). Dr. Kelley is currently Professor of History and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). He is a distinguished scholar and activist and the author of many books including Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class; Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America; Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (with Earl Lewis); and, most recently, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, University of Texas Press, 2009 (Edited by Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley).

Kofi

PR: Your text focuses a great deal of attention on the aesthetic and social relationship between the communal and collaborative ethos governing Monk's creative use, critical examination, and personal interpretation and revision of the African American 'Jazz' tradition in his work as both improvisor and composer. What is truly distinctive and idiosyncratic about Monk's singular approach to the innovative musics of the 1930s and '40s (i.e. 'Swing' and 'Bebop') and his own subsequent evolution as an independent musical stylist and innovator? Why in your view is Monk such an important composer of modern American music generally in the 1945-1965 period and what specific role does Monk's improvisational skills play in this development?

ROBIN: This is a very difficult question and I'm not sure I can do justice to it without writing a small book. As composer, no one was writing melodic lines like Monk. He often broke with the standard 16 and 32 bar song form and created a new metric and harmonic architecture for his music: “Introspection,” for example, has 36 bars and a wandering harmonic movement chock full of whole tone harmony, which very few jazz composers were building on in those days. Or take a song like “Brilliant Corners,” with its bizarre seven bar bridge, shifting tempos, melody with huge intervallic leaps. Or “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” a simple, swinging melody written in 20 bars. And of course, there is no song like “’Round Midnight,” with its insistent descending chromatic harmony, that haunting, startling melody, the sheer beauty derived from a minor tonality and rich dissonance. He also wrote many difficult songs, twisting, swift melodies that gave even the best musicians a run for their money: “ Gallop’s Gallop,” “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Work,” “Skippy.” These tunes proved so difficult, in fact, that they were often recorded once or twice and then dropped entirely.

Yet for all of Monk’s modernism, there was something very old fashioned about his playing. Indeed, I like to think of Monk as “Janus faced,” looking backward and forward simultaneously. He comes out of stride piano, his musical fathers being James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, etc., and he appropriated many of the “tricks” these great pianists had up their sleeves—the ability to bend notes, suspend time, turn the beat around deliberately, among other things. I think Monk simply exaggerated some of these old tricks and rather than smooth out the jagged edges, like an Art Tatum, he lived in the jagged regions of the piano.

In a word, Monk occupied a category unto himself. Despite efforts to place him squarely within the “bebop school” (whatever that might be), unlike the beboppers, Monk was interested in slower tempos; in fusing older jazz ideas of improvising on the melody rather than chords; creating new architecture rather than run alternate changes over tin pan alley song form; interested more in making unique melodic statements than demonstrating virtuosity.

PR: In your examination of Monk's personal background as an artist and individual struggling with the limitations and problems imposed by the racial/social dynamics of the cultural, economic, and political doctrines of white supremacy as well as the psychological and emotional challenges of his bipolar disorder, you go to great pains to show how Monk personally succeeded and failed to address the complexities and tensions of these forces in his life. To what degree do you think Monk's music was affected either positively or negatively by these forces, and how did these factors impact his relations with his family and fellow artists and creative colleagues?

ROBIN: It is hard to speculate in hindsight because Monk left behind a body of work that many now consider genius. Some scholars have argued that manic depression, specifically the swings from highs to lows and back again, enhanced artistic vision and they cite as evidence the large number of artists who suffered from bipolar disorder. And then there is the argument that suffering and struggle are sources of great art—hence the African American musical tradition. I’m skeptical of both assertions because I think every artist must be understood in her or his specific context. For me, racism negatively affected Monk’s life and work by denying him opportunities to write, perform, and make a decent living (early on). On the other hand, the black community he grew up in, the efforts of his mother to encourage his playing, the kind of education he received – formal and informal – profoundly shaped both his music and his creative confidence to make the music he heard. So in this case, race, place and class isn’t a lack but an asset.

On the question of Monk’s mental illness, I come down on the side that it did not enhance or enrich his work or give him unique vision he would not have had otherwise. I think he still would have been “Monk” and, in fact, may have been a more prolific composer. However, I do think the kind of meds and medical treatment he received mattered more than the actual disease. Thorazine made his fingers stiff and it was often a struggle for him just to play. 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.

PR: In your book you go to great lengths to critically detail and expose the often oppressive and clearly exploitive working conditions and brutally capitalist political economy that black artists were forced to work in during the 20th century. How important, even central, do you think the intrusive role of agents, promoters, club owners, recording companies, and critics not only played in Monk' career but his specific generation of black musicians and composers in the 1940-1970 period?

ROBIN: One of the reasons I “followed the money,” if you will, had to do with the fact that Monk’s experience was typical of most musicians, not exceptional. Following his life exposes the music industry—especially the jazz industry—for what it was: a system of artistic production founded on exploitation. It is a system that crosses all generations of the 20th century and did not change much after so-called jazz migrated from popular culture to “high art.” But what I also document and think is equally important is the role musicians themselves played in trying to take control of their “business,” from Gigi Gryce’s efforts and musician-owned publishing, to the avant-garde’s attempt to escape the jazz club in favor of the community center, church basements, outdoor neighborhood venues. Monk wasn’t central to these movements but he was involved and his life provides a window into the constant struggle of musicians to wrestle over the means of distribution. Finally, I tried my best not to paint all musicians and all managers/owners/promoters/producers in stark terms. There were folks in the industry who believed in the music, sacrificed financially for the sake of art or in order to provide artists with more equitable terms, and the divisions between exploiter and exploited did not always cut across racial lines. If anything, I tried to provide a more complicated portrait of the jazz industry that, like capitalism itself, is wrought with contradiction and complexity and reveals not only the holes in this system but the role of human agency.

PR: What specific theoretical and scholarly implications and challenges do you think your biography of Monk holds for the future of historiography of 20th century African American artists and culture in general and Jazz musicians in particular? Why do you think your specific analytical and speculative approaches to the major questions of community and family as well as the different responses of various audiences to Monk's music as improvisor and composer is essential to any broader understanding of Monk's life and art?

ROBIN: Many, if not most, critics treat the book as primarily debunking common myths about Monk. While I did do that, even to the point of unearthing the process by which Monk was “invented,” the truth is I was less interested in what Monk was NOT than who he was, the nature of his creative process, how his family, community and the world that shaped his music and world view. To figure this out required different sources as well as a different framework for understanding the life and work of artists. First, I dug deeper into African American sources, especially the press and first-hand accounts from people who may not have been musicians but were connected the communities that shaped Monk. I found out, for example, that when most scholars assumed Monk wasn’t working (in the 1950s), black-owned clubs in the outer boroughs of New York hired him fairly regularly. There are many, many examples of what happens when we shift our purview from mainstream institutions to those that have been marginalized.

I also found that understanding Monk’s whole life—as a father, husband, uncle, brother, community member, school kid, etc.—opens a window into his creative process and says more about who he is as a man. While “context” in most modern biographies often means listing all the big historical events occurring around an artist, I found that for Monk (and most artists probably) it can often mean something seemingly “parochial” and local—his family relationships, what happened on his block, experiences that can only be located by seeing the larger world through his eyes rather than merely seeing the subject in a larger world, if that makes sense? Biographers of jazz musicians, in particular, should adopt similar approaches because it breaks the strange cycle of Birth/Genius/Addiction/Decline which seems to dominate so many books, often accompanied by a limited landscape that shifts easily from club to recording studio to concert hall to back alley. It also means treating these artists as complete (and developing) human beings who think about more than music and act in the world in relation to others.

Finally (and I don’t mean this is all I can say on the question), my book makes a somewhat provocative claim that it was hard even for Monk to “play Monk.” This is where the homemade rehearsal tapes and other unique sources come in. Biographers, in particular, have often took for granted or ignored how artists create, what kind of work it entails. I was fortunate to have access to these wonderful tapes which demonstrate just how much work went into Monk’s distinctive sound. Tied to this, of course, is the painstaking description of Monk’s “education.” Jazz is too often seen as an interior product of spontaneous genius, natural ability, even racially determined ability. My book exposes these claims as flawed conceits and restores to the music to the realm of creative intellectual activity.

PR: What is the larger cultural and social meaning of Monk's personal and creative quest for a truly independent and self sufficient musical identity and expression in the context of the constant pressures for commercial conformity and aesthetic commodification of his work as an artist in mid 20th century America and what does this intellectual , political, and psychological resistance to these pressures and demands on Monk's art and life tell us about both the Jazz tradition that informed and inspired Monk's creativity as a cultural worker and the larger U.S. musical, social, and cultural ethos that shaped the attitudes and values of American artists and audiences during the historical era that Monk participated in and contributed to?

ROBIN: This, too, is a difficult question to answer because I think both Monk and the jazz tradition of which he was a product and producer was always of two (or more) minds when it comes to broader pressures of commodification. On the one hand, he certainly went against the grain in terms of market pressures, dominant aesthetic values, not to mention the attitudes and demands of American audiences. Yes, he was a rebel, a disturber of the sonic peace, but as the context around him shifted—musically, politically, culturally—he ceased to be so disturbing and, in fact, to conservative critics who once thought he was worthless he became one of the last bastions of the “old” style music. On the other hand, neither Monk nor the majority of jazz musicians completely resisted the terms of the market. Monk always said he wanted “a hit.” The move from Harlem to 52nd Street was partly about making some money, getting some exposure, trying to make a living. Commodification of culture and art was a fact of life, and in the eyes of musicians who have few avenues to make a living, that alone wasn’t the problem. The problem was fairness, being heard, and convincing the industry that audiences would appreciate and buy good music without having to dumb down or mimic current trends. So there will be those who read my book who will come away surprised, if not disturbed, that Monk isn’t always resisting the market to travel his own path. Rather, he is CONFOUNDED by the market because in his view, to his ears, he makes music the people love, music that swings and sticks with the melody, music that ought to be a hit. After all, if Coleman Hawkins could record “Body and Soul” as a work of improvisation then why wouldn’t his songs fly off the shelf? But regarding the very last part of your question, let’s keep in mind that the period in which Monk operated in was full of flux and transition. The music changed to rapidly and yet Monk’s own aesthetic vision did not change one iota, even though his improvisations were always fresh and innovative. For me this means two things: 1) As scholars we must always pay attention to the “background noise” because it shapes how generations actually hear music. We can get caught up in the inherent qualities of a particular body of work but to hear it in 1960 rather than 1940 or 1980 can be fundamentally different experiences. 2) We need to do a better job of understanding musicians’ attitudes toward commodification and the cultural marketplace. Terms like cooptation, accommodation, resistance, even complicity, don’t always capture the complexity of these relationships. Following Monk’s path really shook up my own preconceptions and made me appreciate what it meant for black artists to desire “a hit.”

PR: What was the importance of Monk's relationship to his parent, siblings, wife, children, and other relatives as well as local community to his work as artist and citizen? To what degree did his wife Nellie specifically contribute to Monk's ability to function and prosper as a musician and composer in the crucial 1940-1960 period before global fame and critical acclaim began to give Monk a much higher profile publically and in the broader community of 20th century art and artists both here in the United States and in the rest of the world?

ROBIN: The first part of the question I think I answered above. His mother, Barbara Monk, and his wife Nellie, however, deserve special mention because it would have been impossible for Monk to sustain his career without their support. A good portion of the book documents their role and I don’t want to rehearse that here, but I can say that both women sacrificed a great deal to allow Monk to focus on music. He was never compelled to take a waged job, and both women worked and provided valuable income. Barbara, of course, not only left the South for NYC in order to ensure her children would enjoy a good education, but she paid for piano lessons, taught Thelonious hymns and provided a deep spiritual grounding, and encouraged him every step of the way. Nellie took many odd jobs to make ends meet, gave up certain career goals she harbored, and when Monk became ill she traveled with him frequently to care for him. More importantly, she knew the music and knew it well; she eventually became his road manager, business manager, hired and fired musicians, paid sidemen, took care of the taxes, gave advice about the music, and just become completely involved in the work. As I’ve written in the New York Times a few years ago (after Nellie died), I don’t think she was the exception. Indeed, there were many partners/wives, etc. who provided crucial support as well as musical and business knowledge to working musicians, but our biographers have not always done a good job documenting them. Certainly, a limited understanding of the male artist as creative, individual genius has put blinders on the role these women played and my book tries to rectify it. At the same time, I also suggest that Nellie struggled with this work and did not always like it. She had desires and dreams of her own that were sometimes dashed by her husband’s needs. I try to examine this, too.

PR: How did Monk negotiate the technical, spiritual, and expressive challenges of his art in his specific relationships and creative communication with other major, highly independent. and idiosyncratic artists in Jazz like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and John Coltrane etc.? How did this affect or inform how he worked with other important but lesser known musicians and composers like Gigi Gryce, Elmo Hope, Charlie Rouse, and the great Mary Lou Williams? How central was Ms. Williams role in Monk's development and evolution as a musician, improvisor, and composer, and what constituted the important and pivotal link between them as individuals, colleagues, and partners?

ROBIN: I don’t think how he worked with Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Mingus, ‘Trane, etc., was any different than how he worked with Gigi Gryce, Elmo Hope, Rouse or Mary Lou Williams. Each relationship was it’s own unique thing, and those relationships changed over time. With Miles, Monk began as a mentor figure, which ultimately evolved into a very contentious, almost competitive relationship. Monk also mentored Coltrane and Bud Powell, though the same might be said about Gryce and Hope—except that he also saw these “lesser-known” artists as his peers. Thelonious was very consistent in that he treated everyone the same irrespective of their caliber or reputation or how much money they made. He respected you if you did the work and committed to the music and were willing to “make mistakes” or stretch beyond the usual. And, when he was healthy, he was a very good friend – I was especially struck by his friendships with people like Randy Weston, David Amram, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Nichols, among others. And, of course, there was Mary Lou Williams. She constituted one of his longest lasting friendships since they met in Kansas City in 1935. If anything, she was more the mentor than he, though they had mutual respect for one another, exchanged music frequently in the 1940s and early 50s, and even tried their hand at a three-way piano collaboration with Bud Powell. In the book, I discuss some of their most important exchanges, borrowings, etc., notably Monk’s A-section of “Rhythm-a-ning” was appropriated from a few bars of her arrangement of “Walkin’ and Swingin’”; and how part of the melody for “Hackensack” was borrowed from an arrangement of “Lady Be Good” Mary Lou Williams did for Coleman Hawkins; and I talk about Monk’s home recording of Williams’s arrangement of “All God’s Chillun.” But these are just the musical exchanges; there was much more to their relationship and discussions, ranging from religion to style to fundamental questions of how to help struggling musicians. When Mary Lou put on benefits to help her Bel Canto Foundation, Monk was quick to show up and support her work. The feeling was mutual.

PR: What role did the Baroness Pannonica Koenigswarter ("Nica") really play in Monk's life and career as patron, friend, and confidant? How significant was her patronage and friendship to Monk as human being and artist and what was the nature of Pannonica's relationship to Nellie and the rest of Monk's family? How crucial do you think her role was in Monk's life and musical career and did their relationship impact how Monk viewed others outside his immediate family and community in terms of his art?

ROBIN: Nica played a crucial role in support of Monk’s life and work, though I do think it has been exaggerated and overblown in previous accounts. First, she comes into his life in 1954, and not so much as a patron but a friend. To Monk’s children and nieces and nephews, she was more like an eccentric aunt than a fount of financial support (the Monk’s continued to struggle through the 1950s). She did help out, especially when he was sick, incarcerated, or suffered from two severe fires in his apartment. And she provided a very extravagant gift in the form of a car (Buick Special). But she also struggled at times because of her divorce and at least once Monk loaned HER some money. When she decided to pursue her longstanding interest in painting, Monk encouraged her and came to her group show. Similarly, Nellie and Nica were very close. They supported each other and their link was not only Nellie’s husband, whom they both cared about, but the music, an interest in health food and vitamins, art, a fascination with France, the list goes on. My point here, of course, is that contrary to popular myths that Nica and Monk had a romantic relationship, or that he divided his time between Nica and Nellie, the three of them formed a very close bond. Moreover, Nica was well connected in the jazz world. When Monk needed a sideman at the last minute, he sometimes asked her for advice or summoned her to find someone who might fill in. Nica also traveled with Monk, both around the city and out of town sometimes, when Nellie could not. She was very involved in his physical and mental health, especially late in his life. She ended up paying some of his medical expenses and helped him find doctors (though in some cases her choices were problematic, as with Dr. Robert Freymann, her private physician, who administered amphetamines in the guise of ‘vitamin shots.’)

Their relationship became the stuff of gossip columns after Monk, Nica, and Charlie Rouse were arrested in Delaware in October of 1958. Rouse and Nica were charged with possession of narcotics because Nica had a trace amount of marijuana in her purse. Monk, the main victim, was charged with resisting arrest after he was badly beaten by cops. The story is documented in my book, but for now it is important to note that a common myth is that Nica took the “rap” for Monk by accepting the narcotics charge when it was allegedly his weed. The fact is, besides being held at the station along with Rouse and Monk, she never saw jail time. The reefer was seized illegally and the case overturned by the state supreme court. More importantly, while Nica suffered the indignity of the arrest and mistreatment—as they all did—it was Monk who was severely beaten. Afterward he suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized in Long Island.

So it is let’s be clear: Nica was no substitute for Nellie and she did not give up nearly as much.

PR: Could you compare and contrast Monk's reception as an artist in the United States, Europe, and Asia and how aware were the people of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean of Monk's music and persona during the post WWII era? Did Monk's many global travels affect his outlook on America and in what particular, specific ways? How importantly did Monk view the musical aesthetics and contributions of other cultures throughout the world in terms of both classical and folk/vernacular traditions, and what impact if any did his appreciation and knowledge of these other musics and traditions have on his musical conceptions, tastes, and interests?

ROBIN: Despite the fact that Monk did not travel beyond North America until 1954 (and his first European tour was not until 1961), he had become an international figure in the late 1940s. In 1948, the Romanian surrealist artist, Victor Brauner, did a powerful rendering of Monk titled simply “Thelonious Monk”; the Swiss jazz magazine, Jazz-Revue, published a lengthy and thoughtful analysis of Monk’s entire recorded output in the April 1949. By the 1960s, however, he made several tours of Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and the European and Japanese press carried several articles about, and interviews with, Monk. He also recorded most of the soundtrack to Roger Vadim’s film Les liaisons dangereuses. His impact on musicians and other artists around the world was significant, even if he did not travel to their respective country. One might cite the Ukrainian born, Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg; or in Japan we might mention pianist Yagi Masao, who in 1960 made the first all-Monk LP outside of the U.S.

While Monk did not travel to either Africa or Latin America (except for a couple of gigs in Mexico), his impact clearly spread there. In the book I write about Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba), the brilliant drummer and composer from Ghana who befriended Monk during his sojourn in the U.S. and wrote one song dedicated to him (“The Talking Drum Looks Ahead”). Or in South Africa, we might talk about Abdullah Ibrahim (another pianist) and alto player Kippie Moeketsi. Monk to these artists in South Africa was both startling and familiar. Ibrahim once wrote: “Kippie would talk to me about Monk before I’d heard of any of his records. I was saying: ‘Monk? What’s this Monk thing?’ And then, man I heard the music and I said ‘aaaaaah! I can dig this . . . so this is Monk!’ Kippie would be screaming about how Monk was playing the same type of sound you could hear in so-called tribal music up in the Northern Transvaal. They (Monk, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, etc.) were able to get into Africa as the source of music and we could get into their ‘American jazz’ and come right back to Africa. It’s a circle, an African circle of sound and spirit.”

Monk’s impact on Latin American pianists is indisputable, though the influence goes both ways. Monk grew up in a community where Afro-Latin rhythms—the clave, rhumba, etc.—were all around him in San Juan Hill (West Manhattan). You can hear these rhythms in Monks’ early tunes such as “Bemsha Swing” and “Bye-ya” and “Monk’s Dream.” At the same time, pianists like Gonzalo Rublcaba (Cuban); Danilo Perez (Panamanian), or other instrumentalists such as Jerry Gonzalez, recorded many Monk tunes because they heard the clave in them. An early example of a Latin American piano player taking up Monk’s challenge was Argentinian pianist Enrique Villegas, who recorded a Tribute to Monk in 1967. (In fact, Villegas had first recorded Monk’s music (“Blue Monk”) with his regular trio –Jorge Lopez Ruiz (bass) and Eduardo Casalla (drums) in 1964.)

But to take up the other part of your question, the best example I have of Monk’s drawing on and absorbing global cultural forms (though this cannot be called vernacular) was his adoption of a Japanese song titled “Kojo no Tsuki,” which roughly translates as “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle.” It was composed in 1901 by Rentaro Taki, one of Japan’s legendary Meiji-era modernist composers. Then a graduate student and teacher at the Tokyo Music School, a gifted young composer who had been selected to further his music studies in Leipzig, Germany, but within months of his arrival he fell ill and died soon after returning to Japan. He was twenty-three-years old. Taki’s premature death and the song’s haunting melody transformed “Kojo no Tsuki” into something of a national treasure, especially after poet Bansui Doi contributed lyrics. When Monk heard it, he was drawn to its minor tonality, the medium tempo, and the harmonic movement--which vaguely resembled “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise.” He felt it swung naturally, and he loved the idea of playing music with which the Japanese could identify.

PR: How important do you think Monk was to the history of American music as instrumentalist and composer and do you think his contributions will survive and stand the test of time during and beyond the present century? Why do you think so in terms of the global histories of music and cultural expression?

ROBIN: I’m so happy you said “American music,” because African American artistic expression is at the core of American culture, as you know. And Monk stands among the very pinnacle of that culture; he is also one of the country’s most important composers—I’d place him up there with Charles Ives, John Cage, Gershwin, T. J. Anderson, Ruth Crawford Seeger, William L. Dawson, William Grant Still, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin, among others. I would also place him among the global pantheon of original 20th century composers, along with Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, A. R. Rahman, Boulez, Milhaud, etc. Above I explain what I think is unique and important about Monk’s compositions. Why they will survive? Because they have become part of jazz’s global lexicon. Everyone and I mean everyone who is bold enough to play this music anywhere in the world must know some Monk. “’Round Midnight,” for example, has become an international standard and it is one of the most recorded songs in the world of improvised music.

PR: What has this intense 14 year experience with Monk's work and life as artist, citizen, and fellow African American taught you about music, history, scholarship, and life? What does it mean to you personally as a human being and historian?

ROBIN: Again, I can write another book just on what I learned from Monk, personally. Let me make just a few observations: First, his story challenges the tired idea of the individual, tortured artist—after all, he has all the elements: struggle, poverty, mental illness (and then the elements that are even more common with black rebellious artist, incarceration, police repression, exploitation). But these things don’t define Monk; it was his Village, one he loved and respected, and paid homage to in his music and actions. He survived and created largely because of this village and his family, for they provided a deep cultural foundation and fount of support. Monk was able to create this wonderful gift not because of tragedy and mental illness and incarceration, but in spite of it.Second, I think there are two things that Monk literally taught me directly about living in the now. One is that you should never be afraid of the truth. Whether or not he offended you, he always told you the truth. Even his manager said that in the whole time they worked together, only once did he catch Monk in a little lie. Otherwise, he was always going to speak truth no matter what the consequences were. More of that would certainly make our lives a lot better. The second thing is that Monk taught me the importance of slowing down. We live in a culture now that is built on sound bites. People don't even want to read a book from cover to cover—they'll go to the index to find out what they want to read about. Because in this computer world, it's Google, it's surfing, fishing for the little things, but not seeing the big picture. And Monk's whole thing was, look, slow down. Learn one bar at a time. Play the whole song. Don't skip the melody to go to the improvisation. Know the song. With Monk, there were no sound bites. Every moment in life was electric, and he made sure that we understood that. And so now, in my own life, in my writing, in my politics, I have to slow down and look at the big picture, and make sure that the whole story is told.