Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Musing on Monk

Thelonious Monk once told a musician that he was "making the wrong mistakes." Think about that. Some mistakes in music are closer to success than others, apparently. So, making some mistakes is part of the discipline of learning to find the grove, to finding one's own voice in the band.

This is true in the world of ideas as well. Nietzsche said that the mistakes of great thinkers were more valuable than the petty truths of pedants (my paraphrase). While we ought to aim at truth through the virtuous employment of our reason, we cannot entirely eliminate falsehoods, fallacies, and confusions along the way. That risk is simply part of improving, something essential to jazz.

While there if a time to be quiet and say nothing (The Book of Proverbs has much to advise on this), there is a time to experiment with ideas (if the setting is right). You might even make "the right mistakes." Then, after more time in the woodshed, you may transcend the mistakes entirely and ascend into truth.


  1. While uncomfortable, the woodshed can be not only a very good place but a necessary place to visit. And even the falleness of "mistakes" can be good tools in the hand of God.

  2. I think the "mistakes" here are not sin per se, but rather integral to an organic freedom of action within the boundaries of a natural growth process.

    Music, and jazz improvisation in particular, happens when the musician transcends mere written notes and communicates musical thoughts and ideas rather than merely producing pretty sounds. Ideally, in jazz improvisation, each note is developed in the mind of the musician and reproduced precisely the way he thought it. Anyone who has ever improvised knows that it never happens that way.

    When I improvise, I have the progression of chords in front of me and I summarily experiment to see how I can produce passing chords and melodic phrases that elaborate on the contextual scale and rhythm of the piece depending on my relationship with the particular instrument I have before me and the qualities of the musicians with whom I play. Where I may make the "wrong mistakes" is where my experimentation is unpleasant or incoherent with regard to effectively expressing an appropriate musical thought. A popular example may be in the movie "Back to the Future" where Marty picks up a guitar with a quiet 1950's dance band and breaks out into a 1980s hard rock solo. He was making the wrong mistakes.

    The way that we discover knowledge is much the same way. We experiment with ideas and refine them where they produce functional clarity. There is a scriptural principle where sin causes a lack of clarity. That's because the sinner wants to believe that what is truly clear is not true. Instead, the sinner wants to believe that which is not true and seeks ideas that he believes clarifies the lie he wants to be true. It is not sin to make wrong mistakes as such; it is sin that causes the wrong mistakes to be followed and not corrected. In musical improvisation, the key is to be able to "make a mistake" (play something you didn't expect) and recover seamlessly without losing the coherence of your flow of expression. Those "mistakes" are where new licks come from.

  3. Monk's experimentation with dissonant intervals and melodies (e.g., "I Mean You") and occasional move beyond the ordinary as he steps past traditional consonant harmonies, melodies, and intervals, puts him in a class all his own. He regularly ventures outside the classic 1-4-5 changes or linear boundaries that one would expect to fit within a line or set of changes, inviting a sense of anticipation that often throws off his listeners. Thus, fans came to label Monk "outside". In fact, the term "outside" came to be used favorably for those who adopted Monk's penchant for experimentation. This is what makes Monk great because he gave to jazz the art of "making the right mistakes."