Thelonious Monk

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You can't make anything go anywhere. It just happens.

Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer. He had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "'Round Midnight", "Blue Monk", "Straight, No Chaser", "Ruby, My Dear", "In Walked Bud", and "Well, You Needn't". Monk is the second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington.


  • I don't know where it's going. Maybe it's going to hell. You can't make anything go anywhere. It just happens.
    • When questioned as to the future of jazz, as quoted in Jet magazine (March 31, 1960), p. 30
  • Leonard Feather: You liked the arrangement?
    Monk: Did you make the arrangement? It was crazy.
    Feather: No.
    Monk: It was a bunch of musicians who were together, playing an arrangement. It sounded so good, it made me like the song better! Solos ... the trombone sounded good ... that was a good lead trumpet player too ... I don't know how to rate it, but I'd say it was top-notch.
  • It reminded me of Bobby Timmons, and that's got to be good. Rhythm section has the right groove, too. Drummer made me think of Art Blakey. Hey, play that again. (Later.) Yeah! He sounds like a piano player! (Hums theme.) You can keep changing keys all the time doing that. Sounds like something that was studied and figured out. And he can play it; you know what's happening with this one. Yeah, he was on a Bobby Timmons kick. He knows what's happening.
  • All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.
    • Interview in DownBeat magazine (28 October 1971)
  • Monk enters the studio and starts playing, the rest of the musicians join him. After few minutes of play the technician from his room shouts and stops the band.]
    Monk: Why did we stop?
    Technician: I thought you were rehearsing.
    Monk: Aren't we always?
    • Thelonious Monk Documentary DVD.
  • The piano ain't got no wrong notes.
    • Attributed by WKCR jazz host Phil Schaap, after a guest commented on how Monk played a lot of "wrong" notes. (March 1976)[1]

Quotes about Monk

  • I know this from somewhere—it seems as though every time I turn on the radio this seems to slip in; and I've always liked it. It's cute, real cute; and although it's sort of not in my department and I don't know too much about that type of music, I like it an awful lot. Wonderful piano ...
  • Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way — through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things that I didn't know about at all.
  • Working with Monk is like falling down a dark elevator shaft.
    • John Coltrane, in "Coltrane on Coltrane" in DownBeat (September 29, 1960).
  • I don't see how a record company can record something like that. You know the way Monk plays—he never gives any support to a rhythm section. When I had him on my date, I had him lay out until the ensemble. I like to hear him play, but I can't stand him in a rhythm section unless it's one of his own songs ... I can't understand a record like this.
  • Pianistically, I don't think Van Cliburn has anything to worry about, but if he (Monk) gets that stride thing going a little faster, I don't know... Maybe Art Tatum will have to come back. Pianistically, he's beautiful. (A promoter I know uses that phrase; I guess he likes the way it rolls off his tongue.) But Thelonious is pianistically beautiful. He approaches the piano somehow from an angle, and it is the right angle. He does the thing completely and thoroughly... He hasn't been influenced through the traditional techniques because he hasn't worked through the keyboard composers and, therefore, has his own complete approach of musical thinking. He is such a thinking musician, and I think this is something a lot of people forget about Monk. They somehow feel he's eccentric, but Monk knows exactly what he's doing. Structurally, and musically, he's very aware of every note he plays.
    • Bill Evans reviewing "Darkness in the Delta" from Big Band and Quartet in Concert for DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test" (c. 1964); reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (1966) by Leonard Feather, p. 31.
  • Count Basie at Town Hall ... No, I'm only kidding; of course it was Thelonious Monk. There's been a lot of pro and con talk about Thelonious through the years, but from the beginning I was pro. I was fascinated, and I wondered how he arrived at these things. Eventually I found out, by studying and analyzing them. Now, he is not a virtuoso pianist, but there is real thought behind what he is composing. It's all very well laid out.
    • Benny Golson reviewing a live recording of Monk performing his composition, "Crepuscule with Nellie," for DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test" (c. 1961); reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (1966) by Leonard Feather, p. 30.
  • All I can say is, Monk writes some beautiful tunes. When it comes to being a piano player, I'll see you later.
  • That piano player sounded as honest as a little child. I think the left hand during the first part was a little hard. It could be Monk. Also it could be Mingus playing piano—sometimes he plays piano like that. I liked the record, the honesty of it and the good feeling it had. However, I think it could have been a little better; so I'll give it a three. I'd rather hear wrong notes being played by a person with good feeling than another person playing perfect, like a typewriter, and sound cold.
    • Hampton Hawes, c. 1965, reviewing an unaccompanied rendition of "Sweet and Lovely" from Solo Monk for DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test"; reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (1966) by Leonard Feather, p. 31.
  • His is the sort of music that spans time ... it's something that's happening, and it always feels good to me. I can always readily identify with it, and it always has a freshness about it because of the way he constructs his phrases and the kinds of twists it has. I sometimes would like to hear him in a context with some more adventuresome musicians.
  • A few weeks ago I made a call at his 63rd St apartment and found him practising very thoughtfully on his Klein piano. I felt pretty good when I realised how satisfied he was with his instrument. He invited me to try it out. First I played one of his compositions which I learned a few weeks ago at the Spotlite which he had played with "Hawk". Later I played some of my own tunes which he seemed to like. We promptly agreed to swap three piano arrangements of our tunes. I would arrange "Stratosphere," "Striving," and "Sailing" for him and he agreed to arrange "Ruby, My Dear," "Round Midnight" and another very expressive tune which he hadn't named or whose name he had forgotten. On the day of the proposed swap my tunes were the only ones completed. However, I haven't given up all hope of eventually learning his tunes which I will play morning, noon, and night.
    • Herbie Nichols "The Jazz Piano - Purist" Rhythm (July 1946) p. 11–12, 28
  • Unlike many piano players, I love Monk's playing very much. He was brought to my attention by Richard Abrams, a pianist in Chicago, and we used to analyse Monk's playing. We found that Monk's penchant for playing thee piano is not in velocity, and not in dynamics, but in sound and overtones. He has a lot of other devices for producing the "sound"—I've noticed a lot of times, playing in clubs, where the audience is inattentive, you play something of a Monk nature and use that sonority, automatically their ears respond to it. No other piano player has done more to find out the notes that really produce sound than Monk. To completely toss him aside as a pianistic influence is an asinine view.
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  1. Evan Spring,Phil Schaap Interview, WKCR, October 5, 1992