Thelonious Monk Creates a List of Tips for Playing a Gig: “Don’t Listen to Me, I Am Supposed to Be Accompanying You!”

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.

Here’s a tran­script of the text:

  • 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.

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

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Comments (24)
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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.

  • Tim Motion says:

    Inspir­ing, humor­ous and on the but­ton!

  • Bagamoto says:

    The list isn’t that earth shat­ter­ing gen­tle­men, or orig­i­nal for that mat­ter. As for for “Miss Jazz Sucks”(it was in fun) com­ments, in my opin­ion Mr. Mad­son does prove Miss Jazzes obser­va­tion. Now play nice chil­dren.

  • Roi James says:

    Can I get a high­er res­o­lu­tion ver­sion of this? I’d love to pin it up in my music room.

  • Rick Vaughn says:

    @Roi James:

    Click the link in my descrip­tion. It should be 700 x 948. Hope that’s large enough…

  • Brian Mintus says:

    Monk had it going on and to be there with him, a play­er need­ed to be hip to the scene and the vibe on stage. Not an ego larg­er than the next guy, just much more hon­est.

  • DevonMyles says:

    @JazzSucks…Change your user­name to ‘Jaz­zSocks’. You will find more colour in your life. Love the list. It has plen­ty of jest­ing in it.

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