Thelonious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musicians (1960)

Sto­ries of idio­syn­crat­ic and demand­ing com­posers and band­lead­ers abound in mid-cen­tu­ry jazz—of pio­neers who pushed their musi­cians to new heights and in entire­ly new direc­tions through seem­ing sheer force of will. Miles Davis’ name inevitably comes up in such dis­cus­sions. Davis was “not a patient man,” jazz his­to­ri­an Dan Mor­gen­stern remarks, “and I think he got impa­tient with him­self just as he did with oth­er peo­ple.” Jazz and oth­er forms of music have been immea­sur­ably enriched by that impa­tience.

Oth­er bop eccentrics—like John Coltrane—brought their own per­son­al­i­ty quirks and per­son­al strug­gles to bear on their styles, push­ing toward new insights and exper­i­ments that shaped the future of the music. Their peer Thelo­nious Monk, writes Can­dace Allen at The Guardian, “the job­bing musi­cian who couldn’t, more than wouldn’t, con­form to the con­ven­tions of the job,” seemed the odd man out. He “spent most of his pro­fes­sion­al life strug­gling to sup­port his fam­i­ly.” Monk’s “mis­di­ag­nosed and igno­rant­ly med­icat­ed bipo­lar con­di­tion” and his stub­born refusal to fol­low trends made it dif­fi­cult for him to achieve the suc­cess he deserved.

But it was Monk’s inabil­i­ty to do things any way but his way that made up the essence of his greatness—his insis­tence on “play­ing angu­lar, spa­cious and ‘slow,’” his “daunt­ing and mys­te­ri­ous” silences. A musi­cal prodi­gy, Monk honed his piano chops in Bap­tist church­es and New York rent par­ties before his res­i­den­cy as house pianist for Ted­dy Hill’s band at the famed Minton’s Play­house in Harlem, where he helped ush­er in the “bebop rev­o­lu­tion.” While he “chart­ed a new course for mod­ern music few were will­ing to fol­low,” notes All About Jazz, those who did learned a new way of play­ing, Monk’s way.

What does that mean? The list above, as tran­scribed by sax­o­phon­ist Steve Lacy, lays it all out. “T. Monk’s Advice,” as it’s called, offers guide­lines, point­ers, and point­ed com­mands. Some of these instruc­tions relate direct­ly to live per­for­mance (“don’t sound any­body for a gig, just be on the scene,” “avoid the heck­lers”). Oth­ers get at the heart of Monk’s genius—his tal­ent for cre­at­ing space, both inside the arrange­ments and between the notes. Monk makes sure he’s the only one play­ing “weird notes,” demand­ing that musi­cians “play the melody!” “Don’t play the piano part,” he says, “I am play­ing that.” And he pep­pers the list with cryp­tic philo­soph­i­cal and social obser­va­tions (“dis­crim­i­na­tion is impor­tant,” “always know,” “a genius is the one most like him­self”).

In the last item on the list (cut off in the image above), Monk veers sharply away from music with some humor­ous social com­men­tary. It’s a move that’s typ­i­cal Monk—both deeply seri­ous and play­ful, entire­ly unex­pect­ed, and leav­ing us, as he instructs his musi­cians, “want­i­ng more.” See a tran­scrip­tion of Monk’s list of advice for musi­cians below.

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.

via Lists of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

Cap­tain Beef­heart Issues His “Ten Com­mand­ments of Gui­tar Play­ing”

John Coltrane Draws a Mys­te­ri­ous Dia­gram Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal & Mys­ti­cal Qual­i­ties of Music

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme (1964)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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