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The Monk I Wanted To Be

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in North Carolina. Moved to New York at the age of four, dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and not long after was part of a revolution in Jazz that changed all of music from that time forward. When I was younger I had a passing interest in learning to play the piano, especially so when I heard Thelonious Monk play. Those feelings of wanting to play the piano quickly subsided as soon as I listened to Monk play the piano.


For the uninitiated, Jazz isn’t just music to hear it is music to listen to. You can have Jazz music playing in the background at one of your “get togethers” or it can be playing at your favorite restaurant and if you hear it maybe you will associate your host or the restaurant as being cool, but Jazz has so much more. It has many layers. It is far more complex than any other form of music, it is a conversation. At times it’s a narrative, an exultation, a shout a rant, seven minutes of someone saying “I Love You” without ever saying that phrase. Monk was not a pianist that filled every space he could with music like McCoy Tyner whom played with John Coltrane, nor did he have the same lyricism as Herbie Hancock. Monk was on a different plane. He could almost bend time and space.


As soon as I listened to Monk play, I knew I could never play the piano.


You see, hearing is a passive activity but listening takes work. When I finally realized that Monk wasn’t just playing the piano, I knew I could never do what he does. When I listened to McCoy Tyner play, I knew I could never play the way he does because of how fast and how much music he plays, and Herbie played “too pretty”. What Monk was playing sounded easy. His phrases were simpler than either of the other two musicians… or so I thought. Then when I listened, truly listened, it hit me. The realization of what he was doing hit me like a shock to the system, I gasped with such strength the room was nearly emptied of oxygen. Monk implies missing notes. He doesn’t fill up the space with sound, he doesn’t write out the entire story, he leads you to a place where you finish the sound. Ahhh, the genius!


Jazz is clearly proof of the Triune God of the Bible. The improvisation of Jazz is not random, it stays within the frame of either the melody or the harmony and all the musicians may be playing totally different themes but they are all playing within the order of the structure, it’s not random. The passion, the genius, the knowledge it takes to play Jazz all points to God.

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