Monday, December 29, 2008


[Click for a larger view.]

These scans of aphorisms and precepts attributed to Thelonious Monk, now appearing online, are said to be from a notebook belonging to soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. I can find no explanation as to where these scans originated or when the pages themselves were written. (I latched on via a Google Alert.)

Lacy, a longtime interpreter of Monk's music, played with Monk for four months in 1960, and several of these texts appear, with slight alterations, in Lacy's foreword to Thomas Fitterling's Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, trans. Robert Dobbin (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1997). If these scans are the work of someone amusing himself at the expense of Monk fans, we can trust at least that the following aphorisms and precepts, recorded in Lacy's foreword, come from the source:

Thelonious would not tell me what to play, but he would stop me if I got carried away: "Don't play all that bullshit, play the melody! Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, or play off the rhythm of the melody, never mind the so-called chord changes." Also, "Don't pick up from me, I'm accompanying you!" Also: "Make the drummer sound good!" These tips are among the most valuable things anyone has ever told me.

Some of T.'s other bits of wisdom:

"The inside of the tune [the bridge] is what makes the outside sound good."

"A genius is the one who is most like himself."

"It's always night, otherwise you wouldn't need the light!"

"Whatever you think can't be done, someone will come along and do it."

"Monk = know = 'Always Know' (where you are)."

"When you're swinging, swing some more!"

"You've got to know the importance of discrimination, also the value of what you don't play, the use of space, and letting music go by, only picking out certain parts."

"A note can be as big as a mountain, or small as a pin. It only depends on a musician's imagination."
If I learn anything more about these scans, I'll post it here.


March 15, 2024: Mick Wright informs me that in Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (New York: Free Press, 2009), Robin D.G. Kelley suggests in an endnote (page 531) that the document may be “a poor attempt at a forgery” or something that Lacy himself wrote long after 1960. Neither Mick nor I pretend to understand why someone would forge a document and pass it off as written by Steve Lacy. At any rate, this document’s provenance remains a mystery.

comments: 2

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Michael - Thanks for posting this. I loved the insights of Monk. I especially like "Make the drummer sound good!".
When i'm playing with my favorite drummer sometimes I play my sax lines with wide "tears in the cloth" that accent, reveal, and revel in what the drums are doing. Nice to have a shift in the back and forth in the "forward lines" and blur the boundaries as to who is the soloist.

Michael Leddy said...

Tom, your description makes me think esp. of Mingus groups and Dannie Richmond.

I esp. like "When you're swinging, swing some more," which seems to capture something of music's (at least occasional) inexhaustibility -- the more you give while playing, the more you have to give.