Thelonious Monk’s List of 25 Tips for Musicians

Let’s pro­vide the con­text, just like host Adam Neely and guest Bri­an Krock do in this video: in 1960 Steve Lacy, a young, white sopra­no sax play­er, briefly joined Thelo­nious Monk’s band. Two years pre­vi­ous, Lacy had  been the first jazz musi­cian to release an album of Monk’s com­po­si­tions oth­er than the man him­self. Even so, Lacy was young, excit­ed, and starstruck at play­ing along­side not just Monk but John Coltrane (who shared the bill on the 16 week tour), just absorb­ing every­thing.

At some point, Monk took Lacy aside and gave his some advice which Lacy wrote down, 25 pieces of advice to be exact.

In the video below, from Neely’s always inter­est­ing chan­nel (we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten about him here), he and Krock go through the 25 points and com­ment on each one. For those who love to hear musi­cians (or any artist) talk shop, this is won­der­ful stuff.

Some of the advice is such as befits a live musician—“Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head, when you play”, “Don’t play the piano part, I’m play­ing that”, “When you’re swing­ing, swing some more!,” and “A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imag­i­na­tion.”

Oth­ers are more cru­cial to the busi­ness, espe­cial­ly “Don’t sound any­body for a gig, just be on the scene.” That is: if you around the scene enough, and show your worth, you will get asked to play. But just cold ask­ing won’t get you any­where. Also, when asked what to wear to a gig, Monk advis­es: “Sharp as pos­si­ble!” which you could indeed say of Monk.

Oth­er advice is more mys­ti­cal: “You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?” “What you don’t play can be more impor­tant than what you do.”

And the one that gets quot­ed the most, “A genius is the one most like him­self.” That’s true when it comes to Monk or any of the giants of jazz. To hear Monk, or Coltrane, or Miles Davis play is to hear the artist, the genius, and the per­son, not just the melody or the instru­ment. It reminds me of the great Har­ry Partch quote: “The cre­ative per­son shows him­self naked. And the more vig­or­ous his cre­ative act, the more naked he appears — some­times total­ly vul­ner­a­ble, yet always invul­ner­a­ble in the sense of his own integri­ty.”

And maybe that’s why we keep com­ing back to them, long after their phys­i­cal bod­ies have left this plane of exis­tence.

The full list is as fol­lows:

  1. Just because you’re not a drum­mer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
  2. Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head, when you play.
  3. Stop play­ing all that bull­shit, those weird notes, play the melody!
  4. Make the drum­mer sound good.
  5. Dis­crim­i­na­tion is impor­tant.
  6. You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
  7. All reet!
  8. Always know… (monk )
  9. It must be always night, oth­er­wise they wouldn’t need the lights.
  10. Let’s lift the band stand!!
  11. I want to avoid the heck­lers.
  12. Don’t play the piano part, I’m play­ing that.
  13.  Don’t lis­ten to me. I’m sup­posed to be accom­pa­ny­ing you!
  14. The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the out­side sound good.
  15. 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.
  16. Always leave them want­i­ng more.
  17. A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imag­i­na­tion.
  18. Stay in shape! Some­times a musi­cian waits for a gig, & when it comes, he’s out of shape & can’t make it.
  19. When you’re swing­ing, swing some more!
  20. (What should we wear tonight?) Sharp as pos­si­ble!
  21. Don’t sound any­body for a gig, just be on the scene.
  22. These pieces were writ­ten so as to have some­thing to play, & to get cats inter­est­ed enough to come to rehearsal.
  23. 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).
  24. What­ev­er you think can’t be done, some­body will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like him­self.
  25. They tried to get me to hate white peo­ple, but some­one would always come along & spoil it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Thelo­nious Monk Bombs in Paris in 1954, Then Makes a Tri­umphant Return in 1969

Andy Warhol Cre­ates Album Cov­ers for Jazz Leg­ends Thelo­nious Monk, Count Basie & Ken­ny Bur­rell

A Child’s Intro­duc­tion to Jazz by Can­non­ball Adder­ley (with Louis Arm­strong & Thelo­nious Monk)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (4)
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  • WW says:

    #25: A VERY impor­tant obser­va­tion, that many can learn from!

  • Reinaldo says:

    you don’t believe in Extrater­res­tri­als of high­er evo­lu­tion?
    I believe!!
    Thelo­nious Monk!!!

  • BarbaraMorris says:


  • Brad Gurman says:

    I first met Monk when he played a solo gig at a joint across from Tan­gle­wood, I believe about 1952 or 53. I’d nev­er heard any­thing by him or about him. When I went in, I saw the place was unusu­al­ly crowd­ed and this guy, play­ing the piano, hunched down almost at key­board lev­el, play­ing strange com­bi­na­tions of weird sounds, at least to my ears. But after a few min­utes, I began to hear the under­ly­ing tunes he was, shall I say, almost dodolel­ing on. He was using dif­fer­ent scales, like he was exper­i­ment­ing for his own plea­sure. When it was time for him to take a break, I sort of cor­nered him. I have long lost the details of our con­ver­sa­tion, but as a seri­ous stu­dent of mod­ern music, and hoped to be com­pos­er, it was the peak of my music edu­ca­tion, at least for a while. He was genius of music and music com­po­si­tion.

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