Sunday, December 28, 2008


Circulating on the web are some great quotes from Thelonious Monk, as collated by fellow musician Steve Lacy. Some excerpts:

- 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.

- You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

- 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.

- (What should we wear tonight?) Sharp as possible!

- 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.

Your editor never heard Monk, but recalls one evening in the late 1950s a friend returned from a Boston club to report seeing Thelonious sit at the piano for innumerable choruses, just smoking and listening to the bass player and playing no more than one or two notes. Someone at a front table shouted out, "Hey, Thelonius, play something." Monk let his cigarette drop to the floor and then kicked it onto the complainer's table. He then got up and slowly stalked the outside aisle of the club before leaving and reportedly ended up in a mental institution that night.

The Wikipedia account makes a reference to LSD, peyote and Timothy Leary, who even had the Harvard football team on mushrooms at the time.

Wikipedia - Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctively "hip" sartorial style in suits, hats and sunglasses, and he developed an unusual, highly syncopated and percussive manner of playing piano. He was also noted for the fact that at times he would stop playing, stand up from the keyboard and dance while turning in a clockwise fashion, ring-shout style, while the other musicians in the combo played. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for over twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said: "On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say 'Good morning', 'Goodnight', 'What time?' Nothing. Why, I don't know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn't communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly." A different side of Monk is revealed in Lewis Porter's biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music; Coltrane states: "Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you."

The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) attributes Monk's quirky behavior to mental illness. In the film, Monk's son, T.S. Monk, says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electroconvulsive therapy as a treatment option for Monk's illness, but his family would not allow it; antipsychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reports that at least one of Monk's psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression or schizophrenia. Others blamed Monk's behavior on intentional and inadvertent drug use: Monk was unknowingly administered LSD, and may have taken peyote with Timothy Leary. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and given drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage.

One last Monk tale found in a web comment: "My dad grew up in the Village in the 40's and 50's and saw Monk play dozens of times. One time he was at the bar at one of the clubs and in between sets Monk comes up next to him, orders a Coke, drinks it down, looks at my dad and says 'man, if alcohol tasted like Coke, the whole world would be drunk.' He then goes back and starts his next set.


At December 29, 2008 11:50 AM, Anonymous Axel in Montreal said...

Thanks for this. I'm not sure which would be worse in the long run - the electroshock or the lithium - but how could the family know? A great genius.


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