Advice From the Master: Thelonious Monk Scribbles a List of Tips for Playing a Gig

We’re fascinated by lists. Other people’s lists. Even the ones left behind in shopping carts are interesting (Jarlsburg, Gruyere and Swiss? Must be making fondue.) But it’s the lists made by famous people that are the really good stuff.

It’s fun to peek into the private musings of people we admire. Johnny Cash’s “To Do” list sold for $6,400 at auction a couple of years ago and inspired the launch of Lists of Note, an affectionate repository of personal reminders, commandments and advice jotted by celebrities and other notables.

Most of the site’s best lists are in the “memo to self” category, some with tongue in cheek and others in earnest. But a few offer advice to others. Transcribed by soprano sax player Steve Lacy in a spiral-bound notebook, Thelonious Monk created a primer of do’s and don’ts for club musicians. For the greenhorns, Monk presented a syllabus for Band Etiquette 101 titled “1. Monk’s Advice (1960).” For the rest of us, it’s a view into one of the greatest, quirkiest minds of American music.

Some highlights:

“Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!”

Monk himself was famous for his eccentricity—some say he was mentally ill and others blame bad psychiatric medications. He was known to stop playing piano, stand up and dance a bit while the band played on. But through his advice he reveals his fine sense of restraint.

“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 than what you do.”

Monk was evidently a stickler for band protocol. He leads his list with “Just because you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time!”

What should players wear to a gig? Definitively cool, Monk replies “Sharp as possible!” Read that as rings on your fingers, a hat, sunglasses and your best suit coat.

Kate Rix is an Oakland-based freelancer. Find more of her work at

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  • Manicjazzer says:

    Please note that this is soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s notes and handwriting. Lacy was a great admirer of Monk and performed with him very briefly.

  • Lanny Meyers says:

    I think Steve Lacy played also with Cecil Taylor…yet another genius who was ‘most like himself’.

  • Tom Varner says:

    This was Steve Lacy’s notes of Mr. Monk’s advice and thoughts. Lacy’s handwriting.

  • Christine says:

    Thanks for posting this list. I love all of it. It’s all pithy but I think my favorite is the one Lanny Meyers referred to above.

  • smith says:

    the very last one is really insightful

  • Mark Madsen says:

    That monks “notes” are considered humorous, is an explanation of why the creativity he expanded upon with his work, continues to disappear in today’s small minded, group think world.

    I know you meant do disrespect, but your framing lacked respect as well.

    Mark Madsen

  • Dave Kennilworth says:

    My bum’s come off in my hands!

  • Ray says:

    Mark, I see no evidence that anyone is considering this humorous. I read this framing as finding them inspirational. I certainly do find them inspirational.

  • remy zero says:

    `you`ve got to dig it to dig it, u know….`

  • Jazz Sucks says:

    This comment thread is exactly why everybody else hates jazz and jazz fans. Ugh.

  • Dave says:

    (I never post in these things but can’t resist) Ms. Rix are you joking with the protocol reference or just not aware what musicians mean by “keeping time”? (I’m just curious.)

  • Kenji says:

    @Jazz Sucks. Don’t shove your self-pitying pathology on people who give a shit about things.

  • Bobbio says:

    As a guitarist, some great advice. Best takes for me… don’t over play, hold something back. Don’t rely on the drummer to always keep time or you’ll be ahead or behind. Besides, if the drummer sucks, you’re screwed.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    Every band in every type of music is screwed if the drummer sucks.

  • Miriam says:

    LOL, interested in lists?Undoubtely creative mind!.In a list ,like in a resume there are dead neurones that once were time consuming.

  • Some Dude On The Interwebs says:

    @JazzSucks: Totally non-obvious trolling, well done.

  • shill says:

    While it depends on the type of music you are playing, “Sharp as possible” is advice that more players could use as far as how to dress on a gig.

  • Robert says:

    Great to see these notes from T. Monk. Seeing the thought process of a great musician, their priorities, a snippet of their backstage conversation, is valuable for anyone who plays jazz.

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