The Origins Of The Advice From Thelonious Monk
In the past couple of days, an extraordinary number of thoughtful people have forwarded the following document to me, often with the suggestion that Thelonious Monk penned it himself … I have confirmed with expert jazz historians; this is Steve Lacy’s work, who played with Monk in 1960. Lacy’s introduction to Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music uses the above material explicitly.
Regardless of how they were transcribed, these words provide an intriguing insight into the mind of Monk, a musical genius who changed and transcended jazz even as his life was beset by bizarre and erratic behavior caused by (choose one or more) mental illness, illicit drugs, medications prescribed by psychiatrists who were, according to ones preferred source, astute or incompetent, the LSD he unknowingly took, the peyote he may or may not have taken with the encouragement of Timothy Leary, … .
It isn’t bad advice either. (I’m especially taken by “Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.”)
Steve Lacy, himself, is hardly a musical slouch, a fact that seems to have been lost in the (deserved) cascades of adoration for Monk that have accompanied the distribution of “Monk’s Advice” through the Internet.
Perhaps best known for the performances of his sextet from the 1970s to the 1990s, Lacy performed, recorded, wrote, and taught extensively. Recipient of a 1992 MacArthur Fellowship, he not only championed Monk’s work but also performed compositions by Mingus, Ellington, and other giants, composed extensively, played with a wide variety of jazz, contemporary classical, and avant-garde musicians, taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, and, as Wikipedia points out,
… was interested in all the arts: the visual arts and poetry in particular became important sources for him. Collaborating with painters and dancers in multimedia projects, he made musical settings of his favourite writers: Robert Creeley, Samuel Beckett, Tom Raworth, Taslima Nasrin, Herman Melville, Brion Gysin and other Beat writers, including settings for the Tao Te Ching and haiku poetry.
The notes can be read by clicking on the graphic atop this post to enlarge the image or by perusing the transcription below:
Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.
Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!
Make the drummer sound good.
Discrimination is important.
You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.
Let’s lift the band stand!!
I want to avoid the hecklers.
Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.
Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.
A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.
Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.
When you’re swinging, swing some more.
(What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)
Always leave them wanting more.
Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.
You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)
Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.
Bonus: Monk and Lacy Videos
There are at least a score of dramatically impressive Thelonious Monk videos available. I selected this one because it demonstrates Monk’s trademark syncopated, percussive piano style, dubbed “Melodious Thunk” by his wife Nellie.
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley – ‘Round Midnight (Norway 1966)
There are other Steve Lacey videos with better production values, but the interplay between the band members in this sequence is spectacular. And, the opportunity to showcase the singing and violin playing of Irene Aebi (who was married to Steve Lacy) would itself be sufficient reason to choose this performance.
Steve Lacy (soprano sax), Steve Potts (alto sax), Irene Aebi (violin and vocals), Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass), Oliver Johnson (drums) – Prospectus
Credit Due Department: I first laid eyes on the notes containing Monk’s advice when they were sent my way by Anjani.