There are artists who are inimitable, and then there are the rarefied few who are unplayable; Thelonious Monk was both. Monk took the term ‘sui generis’ to new levels with his revolutionary playing style, as he was at the forefront of the evolving Manhattan jazz scene heyday in the 1940s.
Poet and jazz aficionado Philip Larkin once affectionately described him as “the elephant at the keyboard”, and it’s easy to see why. When he sat down in front of those keys, he played them like no other. He was like some musical mutant hybrid between beast, man and genius. It is also in this rare middle ground that his work now retrospectively resides, he is perhaps the most challenging of all the mainstream jazz artists, but behind Duke Ellington, he is the second most recorded and certainly one of the most loved.
Despite his singular approach to music and his idiosyncratic band management, he was still able to offer up some tips that any aspiring musician, regardless of their instrument or genre, could take note of. The story goes that during a session, Monk began espousing his views on music and saxophonist Steve Lacy grabbed a pen a quickly jotted down “T, Monk’s Advice.”
According to Monk the various rules of the music game are as follows:
- Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.
- Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play.
- Stop playing all that bullshit, those weird notes, play the melody!
- Make the drummer sound good.
- Discrimination is important.
- You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
- All reet!
- Always know
- 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 am playing that. Don’t listen to me, I am 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 everytime); let some things go by. Some music just imagined.
- What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.
- 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 & when it comes, he’s out of shape & can’t make it.
- When you are 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.
- Those pieces were written so as to have something to play & to 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 & 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 & spoil it.
Naturally, some of these tips are a lot easier to follow than others. Take “all reet” for instance; it’s a phrase that few musicians outside of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne could understand and even then, it doesn’t make sense contextually. And others, like the bridge is the part that makes the music outside sound good, is more of a veracious observation than anything else.
Now, this list stands as a paradigm of his own musical legacy. He is viewed as not only one of the most singular musicians to ever be placed on a piano stool but also a man full of unrivalled exuberant joy. He was no stranger to rising up mid-performance, abandoning his instrument entirely and taking a few minutes to have a boogie. Despite his tragic end, it is this zeal and passion for performance that resides on record to this day, and in the list above, perhaps, it even allows us to capture the clearest picture of the man behind it, as he once said: “A genius is the one most like himself.” So perhaps don’t follow his rules so closely after all?