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 katerixwriter.com.



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by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

  • Manicjazzer

    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

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

  • Tom Varner

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

  • Christine

    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

    the very last one is really insightful

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