Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

by Robin Kelley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439190463
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 11/02/2010
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 250,434
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Robin D.G. Kelley is a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. From 2003-2006, he was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia Univeristy. From 1994-2003, he was a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University as well the chairman of NYU's history department from 2002-2003.

One of the youngest tenured professors in a full academic discipline—at the age of 32—Kelley has spent most of his career exploring American and African-American history with a particular emphasis on African-American musical culture, including jazz and hip-hop.

Read an Excerpt



I have a choice here between writing about Monk as he is, or as he seems to be, and is generally thought to be. There isn't any great difficulty about it, because both sides are fertile ground; the stories merely differ in plausibility.
Critic Paul Bacon, 1949

Benetta Smith — known affectionately as "Teeny" — loved to visit her Aunt Nellie and Uncle Thelonious. For a kid growing up in the late '50s and early '60s, the Monks' tiny ground-floor apartment at 243 West 63rd Street, must have seemed almost carnivalesque. Uncle Thelonious sat at the piano turning Christmas carols into Monk originals, or holding forth with a string of friendly put-downs or challenging questions about the ways of the world. Aunt Nellie chatted away, sometimes entertaining the kids with wild and wonderful stories, sometimes cursing booking agents, managers, and anyone else who took advantage of her dear husband, sometimes gently scolding one of her nieces not to "bang" on the piano. Their two children, "Toot" (Thelonious, Jr.) and "Boo Boo" (Barbara), added to the drama and the fun; they were full of energy, and their parents encouraged them to express themselves freely. The apartment and the neighborhood became a playground for Teeny's six siblings, as well as her cousins and their family friends. Uncle "Baby," Thelonious's younger brother Thomas, lived a couple of doors down, so his four children were always in the mix.

Like all his nieces and nephews, Teeny treated her uncle as an uncle — not as some eccentric genius or celebrity. During one of her many visits in 1959 or '60, when she was about twelve years old, Teeny noticed a book of compositions by Chopin perched on her uncle's rented Steinway baby grand piano. Monk's piano was notorious for its clutter. It occupied a significant portion of the kitchen and extended into the front room. The lid remained closed, since it doubled as a temporary storage space for music, miscellaneous papers, magazines, folded laundry, dishes, and any number of stray kitchen items.

Teeny thumbed through the pages of the Chopin book, then turned to her uncle and asked, "What are you doing with that on the piano? I thought you couldn't read music? You can read that?" The challenge was on. In response, Monk sat down at the piano, turned to a very difficult piece, and started playing it at breakneck speed.

"His hands were a blur," she recalled decades later. "Then after he was through, he jumped up from the piano and just started grinning. So then I said, 'You didn't play that right.'"

"Whaaaa? What are you talking about? I played it ten times faster than anyone could!"

Teeny sassed back, "It is supposed to be played adagio and you played it allegro."

Monk loved that kind of one-upmanship, the playful banter, challenges from those who weren't afraid to engage him. And he was proud of his family, including Teeny's burgeoning knowledge of music.

For well over half a century, the press and the critics have portrayed Monk as "eccentric," "mad," "childlike," "brooding," "naïve," "intuitive," "primitive," even "taciturn." As Nat Hentoff, one of the few critics who got to know Monk, observed: "Monk...became a stock cartoon figure for writers of Sunday-supplement pieces about the exotica of jazz. Pictures of Monk in dark glasses and goatee would usually be captioned 'Mad Monk' or 'The High Priest of Bop.' Exaggerated stories of his personal life were the 'substance' of the articles. There was no attempt to discuss the nature or seriousness of his musical intentions." Journalist Lewis Lapham's sympathetic portrait of Monk for the Saturday Evening Post is typical of much of the writing about Monk. He described Thelonious as an "emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child's vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, laughs, walks or dances as the spirit moves him." He was said to be uncommunicative, and music was the only way he could communicate. He supposedly lived in his own little world, exiled from reality, and had no interest in anything except his music and himself. The only music that interested him was his own, or the pop tunes and old standards that he transformed into his own idiom.

Even his fans and defenders made authoritative statements about Monk's lack of interest and/or knowledge of other musical genres — especially classical music. In what was intended to be a genuine compliment, French critic André Hodeir insisted that this "true jazzman" had no interest in "serious music." He assured his readers that "no twelve-tone sirens have lured Monk away from jazz. He probably doesn't even know that such music exists. I can safely say that the gradual development of his language has been the result of intuition and intuition alone." Pianist, critic, and educator John Mehegan said much the same thing in a 1963 essay. "The entire body of resources of Western man," he mused, "relating to the playing of the piano, which dates back to the sixteenth century, remains unknown to Thelonious Sphere Monk for the simple reason that Monk is not Western man. He is a Black man." Even fellow jazz pianist Bill Evans famously stated that Monk's "unique and astoundingly pure music" can be explained by his lack of "exposure to the Western classical music tradition or, for that matter, comprehensive exposure to any music other than jazz and American popular music." Quincy Jones extended the myth of pure genius to Monk's entire interaction with the world, as if he were a sealed fermentation vat: "He is not familiar with many classical works, or with much life outside himself, and I think because of this he did not create on a contrived or inhibited basis."

The myth is as attractive as it is absurd. The truth is, Thelonious Monk possessed an impressive knowledge of, and appreciation for, Western classical music, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of hymns and gospel music, American popular songs, and a variety of obscure art songs that defy easy categorization. For him, it was all music. Once in 1966, a phalanx of reporters in Helsinki pressed Monk about his thoughts on classical music and whether or not jazz and classical can come together. His drummer, Ben Riley, watched the conversation unfold: "Everyone wanted him to answer, give some type of definition between classical music and jazz...So he says, 'Two is one,' and that stopped the whole room. No one else said anything else." Two is one, indeed. Monk loved Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Bach, and like many of his peers of the bebop generation, he took an interest in Igor Stravinsky. And his life was no more monastic than any other urban jazzman's. Indeed, it was far more colorful and interesting than a true monk's. The myths surrounding Monk have gotten in the way of the truth, and the truth about his life and music is fascinating and complicated — and no less original or creative than the myth.

Monk wasn't born with some kind of natural musical knowledge and ability, nor was he entirely self-taught (though he did have perfect pitch). He received a formidable music education and worked very hard to achieve his distinctive sound. Nor did he withdraw into an isolated musical meditation, away from the world. It took a village to raise Monk: a village populated by formal music teachers, local musicians from the San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York in which he grew up; an itinerant preacher, a range of friends and collaborators who helped facilitate his own musical studies and exploration; and a very large, extended family willing to pitch in and sacrifice a great deal so that Thelonious could pursue a life of uncompromising creativity. He drew inspiration, ideas, and lessons from family members, daily experience, joys and hardships, and the city itself — its sounds, its colors, its drama. Hence this book is not just about him, or his music; rather, it is an intimate story about the folks who shaped him — his hardworking and devoted mother, Barbara, his wife, Nellie, and her entire family, their children, his brother and sister and their kids, his musical kith and kin, his patron saint and friend the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, his childhood friends and first crushes, the people of the local community center, his ancestors and the legacy they bestowed upon him; not to mention the agents, managers, producers, critics, judges, cops, attorneys, and others whose actions and decisions directly affected Monk's livelihood.

Thelonious Monk was very much of the world, at least until mental and physical illness finally caused him to withdraw, making his world seem much smaller, self-contained, and at times impenetrable. For most of his life he remained engaged and fascinated with his surroundings. Politics, art, commerce, nature, architecture, history were not beyond his ken, and Monk was the kind of man who loved a good debate, despite stories of his inability to communicate. Fortunately, many of his close friends and family members have been willing to share their stories, most of which have never been told before in print. They reveal a startlingly different Thelonious Monk — witty, incredibly generous, intensely family-oriented, curious, critical, and brutally honest. In addition, Monk himself was frequently captured on tape telling stories, debating, or just shooting the breeze. The tapes were made by his friend and supporter the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, the photographer W. Eugene Smith (at whose loft Monk's big band often rehearsed), or by his wife, Nellie. Such tapes are a biographer's dream, for they capture impromptu conversations and ideas unmediated by interviewers or media outlets.

One of those recordings, made by W. Eugene Smith during a big-band rehearsal in June of 1964, caught Monk in a funny conversation about the power of porpoises. Overhearing soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy talk about his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd, getting a job at the Library of Congress working for Alan Lomax organizing recorded music from around the world, Monk's ears perked up. Monk pressed Lacy for details, and Lacy in turn explained to Monk that he was listening to "Eskimo music...the wildest African shit you've ever heard, Chinese music...even the music of porpoises." Monk then explained to the room, "They say if you can ever make a tape of a porpoise and play it back, down slow enough, it's the same as the human voice. They are so close to the human species. Because they have the same box here [pointing to his throat]." After explaining that they communicate at very high frequencies, Monk performs a pretty convincing imitation of a porpoise cry. He then launches into a lecture about how man might benefit from harnessing the porpoise's ability to sense everything around them: "You know, it's an amazing thing to study the porpoises. With the study of the porpoise, they going to find out possibilities of completely obliterating a blind man's stick. Walk down the fucking street blind as a bat, and naked. They'll put a little sonar thing in his ear or something that is able to tell when you're getting up to anything, the kind of object, the texture of the object, whether it's a building or a could tell that it's either a hard surface or cloth. Because they've checked out porpoises and they can't figure out, they hadn't been able to figure out why a porpoise can swim in dark, murky waters, so you can't see nothing at all, and they won't hit a motherfucking thing."

Other tapes are more intimate, like the tapes Nellie made of Monk rehearsing at home. These tapes reveal Monk's deep and abiding love of this music, Mrs. Monk's delight in listening to her husband, and the joy they both derived from each other's company. Between and during songs, the recorder captures snippets of a love affair. Sometimes they joked with one another, or simply conversed about how to work the tape recorder; other times Nellie sang along in unison with the piano. Monk had evident trust in her knowledge and opinions about music as well as in her ability to run the tape machine, even when she was just learning how to work it. These tapes are windows into more than Monk's music. They reveal Monk as both a comic and a romantic — he had a tremendous sense of humor, and he deeply loved old songs. At the end of a tender rendition of "Tea for Two," he turned to Nellie and asked, with even greater tenderness, "Were you recording that?"

The critics who interviewed him backstage or observed him dancing across the bandstand missed these sides of Monk. Like most people, he was not one to unveil himself to strangers. Sometimes Monk's eccentric public behavior was a way of salvaging whatever private life he had left. As he once told the writer Frank London Brown, "You know people have tried to put me off as being crazy. Sometimes it's to your advantage for people to think you're crazy."

He got a kick out of fooling people, particularly those whom he thought were too lazy or afraid to think for themselves. One of his favorite pranks was to stare intensely at a spot on the ceiling or in the sky, either in a crowded room or on a street corner. Invariably, several people would look up with him, searching for whatever elusive object apparently fascinated him. It was an experiment in mass psychology that brought him great amusement.

But not all of Monk's bizarre actions were artifice. Thelonious suffered from bipolar disorder, the signs of which are evident as early as the 1940s. But by the early 1960s, just as he began to earn the fame and recognition that had eluded him for the first two decades of his career, various mental and physical ailments began to take an even greater toll, exacerbated by poor medical treatment, an unhealthy lifestyle, the daily stresses of a working jazz musician, and an unending financial and creative battle with the music industry. Some writers romanticize manic depression and/or schizophrenia as characteristics of creative genius, but the story of Monk's physical and mental ailments is essentially a tragedy, a story of his slow decline and the pain it caused to those closest to him. Its manifestations were episodic, so he continued to function and make incredible music up until the day of his retirement in 1976. During these nearly twenty years, his ability to lead a band and to dig out fresh interpretations of compositions he had been playing for decades, in spite of his illness and a protracted struggle with the industry, was astonishing.

Three decades ago, when I was young, messing around with piano and studying bass slightly more seriously, my new stepfather, Paul, a professional tenor sax player, had me listen to Monk and Johnny Griffin perform "Evidence." Soon I memorized everyone's solo on that record, including Roy Haynes's unaccompanied snare drum rolls, which is impossible to approximate verbally without spraying spittle on anyone standing within five feet of my mouth. I became completely obsessed with Monk's sound, his clang-clang sound of surprise, rich with deafening silences, dissonances, and harmonic ambiguities. It was that ice cream truck sound: Monk the good humor man. I worked on that sound on piano, from Monk's blues and intricate and lovely ballads to his up€‘tempo numbers, which nearly put me in the hospital. His sound seemed beyond my grasp, beyond my comprehension. I played more notes; I played fewer notes; I changed the chord voicings; I played in front of the beat, I danced around the beat, and finally gave up and retreated to rubato. I listened and listened some more. I even summoned him from the ancestors to help...and he came to me, in a dream. Decked out in divine alligator shoes, a dark green silk suit, yellow tie, bamboo sunglasses, and a cold straw hat, he snuck up behind me as I sat hunched over my stepfather's Steinway upright, looked over my shoulder, and simply mumbled, "You're making the wrong mistakes."

Here, more humbly, is an attempt to evoke his world in words, not music. Monk consistently and boldly spoke the truth, no matter whose feelings were hurt. One of his favorite mantras was "Always Know," adding that the word "Know" was Monk spelled backward with the "W" inverted. He often illustrated the point with a huge custom-made ring that had "MONK" emblazoned across the top in diamonds, turning it upside down in case you didn't get it. "Always Know!" All Ways Know!

This book is my attempt to "Know" Monk, the man behind the mystique.

Copyright © 2009 by Robin D. G. Kelley

Table of Contents

Preface xv

Prelude xvii

1 "My Mother Didn't Want Me to Grow Up in North Carolina" 1

2 "What Is Jazz" New York, Man!" 15

3 "I Always Did Want to Play Piano" 25

4 "We Played and She Healed" 40

5 "Why Can't You Play Music Like the Ink Spots"" 51

6 "They Weren't Giving Any Lectures" 60

7 "Since You Went Away I Missed You" 76

8 "I'm Trying to See If It's a Hit" 89

9 "Dizzy and Bird Did Nothing for Me Musically" 104

10 "The George Washington of Bebop" 122

11 "It's a Drag to Be in Jail" 143

12 "The 'Un' Years" 156

13 "France Libre!" 170

14 "Sometimes I Play Things I Never Heard Myself" 178

15 "The Greta Garbo of Jazz" 187

16 "As Long as I Can Make a Living" 198

17 "People Have Tried to Put Me Off as Being Crazy" 214

18 "My Time for Fame Will Come" 225

19 "The Police Just Mess with You ... for Nothing" 240

20 "Make Sure Them Tempos Are Right" 257

21 "Hell, I Did That Twenty-Five Years Ago" 279

22 "Bebopens Oversteprast" 298

23 "Maybe I'm a Major Influence" 310

24 "Everything Begins Here and Everything Ends Here" 327

25 "That's a Drag Picture They're Paintin' of Me" 345

26 "Sometimes I Don't Feel Like Talking" 363

27 "Let Someone Else Create Something New!" 386

28 "What Do I Have to Do" Play Myself to Death"" 409

29 "I Am Very Seriously Ill" 431

Postlude 449

Acknowledgments 453

Appendix A A Technical Note on Monk's Music 461

Appendix B Records and Tapes in Thelonious Monk's Personal Collection 463

Notes 465

Original Compositions Thelonious Monk 565

Selected Recordings Thelonious Monk 573

Selected Documentaries and Videos of Thelonious Monk 575

Index 577

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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
keyboardmaniac More than 1 year ago
I've been reading biographies of great jazz artists over the last year. There were several biographies available regarding Monk, but none of them were compelling enough - based on my reading of various reviews - to purchase. I finally became aware of Mr. Kelly's book. This book will surely be recognized as the definitive Monk biography. I feel that I now have a more realistic view of this great pianist, composer, and performer.
LittleGiantOfTexas More than 1 year ago
I'm 63 and fell in love with Monk's music at 16. I devoured Robin D.G. Kelley's book every spare minute I had. I would have loved to have heard Monk in person, but reading Mr. Kelley's book was almost like being there. In the process of telling the story of Thelonious Monk's life, Mr. Kelley tells the story of jazz and the struggles of black jazz musicians. Mr. Kelley spent more than 10 years researching the book and had access to Thelonious' family, and the detail is amazing. The story is there, warts and all, and feels like an accurate portrait of a jazz genius. This is a must read for the serious jazz-aphobe or the serious Monk-aphobe. Those without interest in music could get a little lost in the musical terminoloty at times, but it will also interest those with an interest in black history. Mr. Kelley is a serious scholar and teaches history and American studies at UCLA, but the book is anything but dry! I thank Mr. Kelley for bringing to life my favorite musician in the entire world. As Monk used to say, "The piano ain't got no wrong notes!"
ThomasJ More than 1 year ago
Kelley makes it clear from the top, the hats he wore, dancing around the piano, not always showing up in time for a gig, and the 100 other little things that made Monk a true original, was not how he wants us to remember. Kelly stars at the very beginning, detailing how his roots began in the South and ended up in New York. The author tries to be very accurate about his clan throughout the whole book. The people in and out of the business who were there for Monk, were there up to the end. Record companies, most specifically Columbia tried to get as much "product" out as possible, Trios, big band, solo, whatever could push wax. Readers need patience when reading "Thelonious Monk." Stay calm, the 600 plus pages are worth the wait. Monk was not always really uderstood by critics and listners. Make up your own mind
jberkowitz on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
A Great Read! Lots of interesting facts about his life.
kidzdoc on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) rose from a humble beginning as the son of day laborers in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to become one of the legendary¿though misunderstood and underappreciated¿composers and musicians of modern jazz. The subtitle of this masterful biography claims that Monk is an "American Original", which has been applied to countless other public figures. In this case, however, the author is absolutely correct; "The High Priest of Bebop" was unlike anyone else, in or outside of the world of jazz.Robin Kelley, a professor of History and American Studies at USC, spent 14 years researching and writing this biography, which includes 100 pages of footnotes from hundreds of colleagues and members of Monk's family. Although the book has an extensive amount of detail, this reader did not get bogged down in it, as Kelley did a masterful job in portraying Monk's complicated and tormented life. Thelonious, whose name represents the Latinized spelling of St. Tillo, a former slave who became a renowned 7th century Benedictine monk in France, was named after his father, who bestowed his love for music to his son, along with his mother Barbara, who took her children to New York City to escape the crushing poverty of the Jim Crow South. Thelonious Sr. was plagued by mental illness throughout his adult life; his son also suffered from what was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar, or manic depressive, disorder. However, this diagnosis did not come until late in his life, and he was institutionalized and jailed multiple times when he was in the throes of a manic episode, and received medical treatments that exacerbated his symptoms. His illness contributed to his reputation as being weird and unpredictable, but it may have also led to his creative genius, as his compositions were innovative and complex. His music was widely misunderstood, as many of the leading jazz artists had a difficult time playing alongside him, and critics often described his music as primitive and abstract. However, he had extensive musical training, considering the limitations he faced as a poor black male in mid-20th century America, as he received piano lessons from noted jazz and classical teachers, and played piano in his mother's church and for a traveling evangelist as an adolescent. He initially performed in jazz clubs, most notably Minton¿s Playhouse in Harlem, but he was barely able to make ends meet despite his growing popularity. Monk, like many jazz musicians of that time, was plagued by unscrupulous club owners who paid him poorly, fellow musicians who claimed his music as their own and stole royalties from him, and record producers who did not utilize his talents fully and underpaid him routinely. His break finally came during an extended gig at the Five Spot Café in the East Village in 1957, with a group that featured John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. He achieved a moderate amount of success over the next few years, with sold out concerts in the US, Europe and Japan, although he was paid far less than Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or other notable jazz artists. The music scene changed in the mid-1960s, due to the influence of rock music, and his stature and popularity waned as he refused to adopt to the new trends and as his illness prevented him from writing new material. His last years were spent in seclusion, with the aid of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known to her friends as Nica, an artist, jazz aficionado and estranged member of a wealthy Austrian family, who befriended and supported Monk throughout much of his adult life.However, the true stars of this amazing biography are Monk¿s mother Barbara and his wife Nellie; without these strong and determined women, Thelonious would probably have never been heard outside of Harlem. Barbara Monk allowed her son to set his own path, and supported him financially in his early years. Nellie was everything to her husband: devoted wife and mother to their two talented children, personal assistant
HHS-Staff on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
Reviewed by Mr. Overeem (Language Arts)Finally: modern jazz's most mysterious genius demystified--somewhat--in a biography fans have waited nearly thirty years to read. Kelley brings a musician's mind and ear and meticulous research skills to a very important task: illustrating that, rather than being a primitive, instinctive mad man (a misunderstanding that carries racist overtones), Monk was master musician and technician, with such a capacious theoretical mind that even his most accomplished peers (like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane) had difficulty getting their minds and horns around his conceptions. The reader may occasionally get swamped in detail, but he will also emerge with a rewarding shopping list of essential American recordings.
BillPilgrim on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
This is a thoroughly research account of the life of the jazz pianist. It is full of footnoted citations. It accounts for his life in light of the times he was living in. I find it very interesting and well written.I had to return the book to the library after getting to only page 84, but I plaaced another hold on it, so I will continue the book soon.
snash on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
I found this book to be a well researched and well rounded picture of Thelonious Monk. Given his struggles with his own mental state and with the jazz critics, it's amazing that he persevered as long as he did and created such spectacular original music. I wish there was a more complete picture of the emotional nature of his upbringing to better understand the sources of his troubles but I'm assuming that's well hidden. I have always loved his music and this look at the man gives me even greater respect for him. As others have mentioned, the book would probably be tedious without a familiarity with jazz movements and musicians.
richardderus on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
I wish I'd never read this book. I now don't like Thelonious Monk, who comes across in these pages as a self-centered snot whose mental illness could and should have been medicated to ameliorate its nasty effects on those around him; and I flat don't like the selfishness and effrontery of the man.His music is great. I will do my damnedest to forget the rest.I spent 451pp hoping that soon I'd get past the building distaste for the man whose talent I'd revered for decades. Sadly, it never happened. I think Robin Kelley got Stockholm Syndrome and fell into the world of Monk so completely that he became an apologist instead of a biographer and the book became a hagiography. Kelley's serviceable prose rises to a sort of two-dimensional poesie when rhapsodizing about Monk's music, but it's never better than average.Not recommended. Not at all. Want to know about Monk? Listen to "Ruby, My Dear." It'll teach you what you *really* need to know.
drneutron on LibraryThing 9 hours ago
Monk's one of my favorite jazz pianists, and I knew he was eccentric. I didn't, though, know just how screwed up he was. Nor did I understand how much he (and his caretakers!) struggled over the years for the recognition he felt he deserved and how, once he got it, it turned out not to be what he needed. Kelley's biography of Monk? Pretty good. I suspect that having an appreciation for jazz of the 40's through the 60's makes this a better book, though. Without the musical context, the names and concerts and songs won't be nearly as interesting. I do wish that Kelley had discussed the relationship between Monk's mental condition and his music - I have to believe that some of his musical ideas grew from his unique view of the world. But then we'd be well out of the realm of biography and deep into psychology.
Arthro92 More than 1 year ago
I've loved, Thelonious Monk's music and swagger for years. There were times when I listened to his music covered by someone else and wasn't aware that the song I was listening to was an original Monk tune. When I learned of his documentary, ''Straight, No Chaser'', I couldn't wait to watch and learn. Watching the documentary, just made me love and admire him even more. However, I was still a bit hungry for some knowledge concerning the Monk. This book gave me great insight into the life of a great man, who was born to be the jazz great he was. I only give this book a four star rating, because I agree with some earlier reviewers when they write there were times when it seemed as if the author was just writing things down to add pages to the book, for what ever reasons. All in all, it's a great book.
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