Interview with Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, 2010

Here is a fascinating 2010 interview from Psychology Today with Robin D. G. Kelley, author of the great biography Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original. This is a little different from the musician and producer interviews I usually post, but it is such an interesting look at the legendary pianist and composer, I thought you’d be interested in checking it out. Kelley does a great job of not skirting Monk’s mental issues in the book, and he goes into detail about it here. From the interview:

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.

Click here to read Interview with Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, 2010