“The Monk runs deep” is the prevailing notion about Thelonious Monk and it’s correct. I’ve been a lifetime fan of his music and now 2/3rds through Robin Kelley’s extensive biography, I’m both intrigued and inspired by him as a person. I love the stories about him as a family man and guy in the neighborhood and love the way he’s constantly teaching the musicians around him, offering the advice that precisely hits the target of their next step of development.
Like his comment after listening to a pianist:
“You’re playing the wrong mistakes.”
That stops you in your tracks. Huh? But if you sit with it for awhile, the light goes on. The wrong mistakes are the ones that you make trying to copy someone else and failing (as you always will). The right mistakes are the ones that are 100% yours, the kind that no one else can make the way you do, the kind that lead you to the expression—musical or otherwise—that you were meant to offer to the world.
Another one of my favorite Monk stories is about the college who hired him to critique their jazz band. He listened attentively and when they finished, everyone waited breathlessly to hear his comments. They were probably expecting things like, “The drummer should switch to the ride cymbal on the bridge” or “Consider this substitute chord in bar 15.” Instead, Monk just stroked his beard and said:
“Keep on tryin’.” (Check, please.)
I think of this often. At the end of the day, what else is there to suggest?
Like I said. The Monk runs deep.