Thelonious Monk ABÉCÉDAIRE AB C-BOOK

By Jacques Ponzio
Lenka Lente

Haikus, aphorisms, parables, found poetry or savant sayings, the pronouncements of pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917 -1982) made to fellow musicians or in interviews during his 40 year career have been collected by Jacques Ponzio in this slim, bilingual volume. With Monk’s statements in the original English and in French on facing pages lined up alphabetically by subject, the perceptive reader can gauge some of Monk’s personality and talent by randomly leafing through the book. The quotes were gathered from 33 sources, end notes (in French) have been added for further comprehension.

Unlike the epigrams in Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book or Benjamin Franklin Poor Richard’s Almanac, Monk’s statements aren’t meant to be didactic or uplifting. Some are downright enigmatic, a perfect fit for the pianist who first came to notice as the so-called High Priest of Bebop. Monk was also the master of the put-on. When asked what he thought of polls, as in Jazz polls, he murmured “I have a lot of respect for the Polish people, especially the way they can drink vodka.”

Monk’s life was music, and in addition to asides dealing with other subjects such as race, politics, religion and fame, the pianist was most expansive when it came to music, especially his own playing and composing. As he says: “What is an original? If it sounds original, the construction, the melody, you have to have your own sound” or “I compose my pieces with a formula that I create myself” or “There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.” or “I’ve got it all written down, but we do just as well without reading notes. That way nothing detracts”. His equally cryptic advice to his band members include: “The only cats worth anything are the cats that take chances” or “Don’t play everything or every time … let some things go by … what you don’t play can be as important as what you do” or “Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you.”

Valuable as glimpse into Monk’s mind, and a method of remembering some of his good lines, but no Jazz text book, never forget that the comments in ABÉCÉDAIRE AB C-BOOK come from a musician whose guidance to a fellow player was: “you’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”

— Ken Waxman