Monk’s Music and Jazz and Improv

When I first heard Thelonious Monk’s music, almost every note held a little surprise for my brain. It reminded me of how I felt when I was doing or watching really good improvisational theater. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff described some of Monk’s compositions as “seemingly bare skeletons for improvisation.” And, as an added bonus, to my ears it was “funny” music. To wit: some Monk tune titles – “Trinkle, Tinkle”, “Little Rootie Tootie”, and “Nutty.”

Randy Weston, a protégé of Monk’s, tells a story about getting the chance, as a young man, to finally meet his idol. He got an invitation to come by Monk’s apartment for “a music lesson.” On that day, Monk opened the door and gestured for the young man to enter. Monk didn’t say a word, not even “hello.” Weston waited, quietly wondering when the music lesson would begin, while Monk puttered around the apartment like no one but Monk was there.

No conversation, no sitting at the piano together. Ham and eggs frying in the pan, drops of water dripping in the sink, the strike of a match to light a cigarette, the shuffling of Monk’s feet, traffic noise from outside and, throughout the day, Monk noodling by himself at the piano. Come evening, Monk headed out, leaving Randy Weston alone in the apartment! At the door, Monk turned and half-mumbled to him: “Listen to every kind of music.” That was it. “Listen to every kind of music.”

Weston said he remembered that day as a mind-expanding music lesson, as well as a lesson for living life: to open your eyes and ears, body and mind to every kind of music. * It’s a lesson for the rest of us as we improvise our lives. Let go of rigid opinions and narrow preconceptions (like what a music lesson is “supposed” to be). Make room for JUST LISTENING and paying attention to all the “music.”

Makes no difference if it’s random sounds or a more traditional musical composition, an improv on stage, a creative decision at work, a session with a client or a patient, a conversation with a friend or loved one. Making an active choice to listen facilitates opportunities for clearer communication, greater honesty and empathy. Listening builds confidence to trust the tune, share our stories, and empowers us to co-create the path forward. When we listen to every kind of music, we become, in life and in art, better improvisers.

* NOTE: Randy Weston, who turns 91 in April, has lived his entire life as an accomplished jazz pianist and Cultural Ambassador, tracing the roots of all music back to the African Motherland.

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