Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Monk's Dream

By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Biographies, for all their historical and contextual value, can often times be read and then placed on the section of one's bookshelf next to other books that have been left to collect dust, existing only as boring reminders that we've read them once. But Laurent de Wilde's fascinating and beautifully written work of the life of Thelonious Monk -- without a doubt one of the most reclusive and mysterious figures ever to strike the ivories -- is a stunning example of how biography should be undertaken. De Wilde's Monk is truly a dream.

"New York, New York. Man, the place is crawling. Like the whole world was coming to town," begins de Wilde like some enchanted storyteller. "One great big living room. Glass, stone, cash, noise, neon, fire sirens, potholes, sweltering summers. And plenty of jazz. Looking at Manhattan from the boat when you're coming in from the south of the island, you see something solid, lanky and proud. Narrow, muscular shoulders, lean-waisted, feet firmly planted ... It shakes, builds, tears down and eats up the past, and crashes headlong into the future." With a beginning like that, one might expect images of Monk to be boldly crafted with real blood and guts and passion. And that's exactly what one gets.

De Wilde is not a casual observer of his subject, nor does he rely on pure research, exact dates or much of the "who said what to whom" that make some biographies overwrought and unwieldy. Instead, he lets his prose flow like the East River, winding through the streets, the clubs, the tales, legends and music, soaking it all in and letting glittering shards of it wash up on shore for some unsuspecting treasure hunter to pocket.

Himself an accomplished jazz pianist, de Wilde is perfectly suited for the task of making sense out of Monk's life. He approaches Monk from a musician's perspective first, letting the factual elements fall into place where they should, rather than forcing the abstract concept of chronology on the heartbeat of a life.

Monk is the best biography you'll read this year, one that will beg to be read again and again. Never before have the mysteries of the jazz icon been so thoughtfully explored or left more thoroughly intact and unaffected by conjecture. De Wilde has constructed a masterpiece that Monk himself would be proud of, although he'd probably never let on.

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