USC professor Robin D.G. Kelley sets out to shed new light on Monk in his new book "Thelonious Monk, the life and times of an American original (ISBN 978-0-684-83190-9).
Not so much uncovering covering new material, writer Terry Teachout "Pops, the life of Louis Armstrong (ISBN 978-0-15-101089-9) brings renewed insight into the man and his music.
In Armstrong's (Pops) case that means emphasizing the tremendous effect he had on jazz and jazz musicians long before he became the famous for his gravelly voiced interpretations of popular songs. It was during the late-in-life pop period of Armstrong's life as an American pop icon that he was denigrated by younger African-American musicians for being a "Tom". In fact, as Teachout points out, Armstrong was far from a "Tom" instead being a naturally a happy go lucky guy who loved putting on a show.
Several years ago, a PBS show paid tribute to Armstrong. Universally the trumpeters interviewed from old schoolers to avant-garde players Lester Bowie of the Chicago Art Ensemble praised Pops as an influence and the man who took jazz in a whole new direction in the late 1920s much as Miles Davis would do in 1960 with the issuance of "Kind of Blue".
In the "Pops" afterward section, Teachout notes: "one of the purposes of this book is to explain to a new generation why all the praise of Armstrong still rings true."
For Monk, Kelley gets behind the pianist's often-weird hipster persona and into the fact that his music bridged the gap between the old and new in a most unique way.
The longstanding myth about Monk is that his music was totally original. Kelley puts that to rest noting: "The myth is 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 categorization."
Monk also paid tribute often and humorously to the grand masters of stride and other early forms of American jazz piano and well as making technically masterful yet hilarious takes on schmaltzy old pop songs.
In regard to paying tribute to the great stride tradition. Monk followed classical composer Igor Stravinsky's dictum that tradition: "is not a relic of a past irretrievably gone: it is a living force that animates and informs the present."
"Monk" took Professor Kelley fourteen years to write and is an absolute marvel of detailed information. The book has an academic tone that makes the reading 451 pages of small type sometimes a bit of a slog.
On the other hand, Teachout's book has a strong narrative feel to it making it an easy read.
In both books, there's the similar theme of early poverty and the numerous obstacles faced by African-Americans during both men's lifetimes. A sidebar to Monk's musical life is his battles with drugs, the police and a never properly diagnosed bi-polar condition.
As for Armstrong, he was perhaps the greatest champion of smoking weed to ever come onto the planet. Once it became illegal in the early 1930s, he too had his share of run-ins with the law but remained a faithful "Viper" to the end.
Pops was, according to friends and musicians he played with, the sweetest most genuine person imaginable. Who else could have gotten away with saying: "no daddy but we're working on that," when the Pope asked him if he and his wife had any children.
Later he told the Pope, "Hey Pops, I gotta split to get to my gig."
Listening to Monk playing "Blue Monk" today proves that his work is timeless. And seeing the Clint Eastwood produced film on Monk ("Straight No Chaser") or "A Great Day in Harlem" are nice waya to enhance reading Kelley's book.
Listening to Armstrong 1928 recordings of "Potato Head Blues" and "West Ends Blues" show the pre-pop song master playing like a man possessed and pushing jazz in a whole new direction.