By Mark E. Smith
I’m sure as a younger child I questioned it all. But, by adolescence, I was just me, and there was no room for me or anyone to question it. I mean, it was questioned – who I was because I was different, my disability seemingly made me different – and it would occasionally sting in the moment. However, I ultimately understood I was who I was, I am who I am, let’s get on with this.
The jazz great, Thelonious Monk, was of that spirit, too, long before I was born. During the 1940s through the 1960s, when you had the greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday evolving Jazz in a linear form, Monk was innovating on the piano in ways no one had ever seen.
Monk was first and foremost a composer, with musical eccentricities that few could follow. Improvising was a staple of jazz in that era, but his obsession with improvised composition on stage made him a lone wolf, where he didn’t care what the band played or what the audience wished. Monk simply followed his passion key by key, note by note, reveling in what he discovered in the moment, oblivious to all around him. Often, the only queue to what he was playing was his right foot keeping time. He just played as him, and whether the world followed didn’t matter. John Coltrane said, “Working with Monk is like falling down a dark elevator shaft,” and Miles Davis for a time refused to play with Monk due to Monk’s defiance toward staying in line with the rest of the band. In the refined world of jazz performance, Monk was also known for stopping playing mid song, getting up to dance alone as the rest of the band played on. Indeed, Monk was Monk, and he wouldn’t meet arbitrary norms.
In the process of being him, Monk ultimately lived an obscure but free life, where beyond his immediate circle, he was generally unknown during his career, never getting the fame of his contemporaries. Yet, in the process, he composed an astounding body of recorded work, only second to Duke Ellington. Monk largely disappeared from 1971 till his death in 1982, struggling with mental health issues along the way. Posthumously, he was granted a Pulitzer Prize for his body of work, and is subsequently now known as among the greatest jazz composers and musicians of all time.
How many among us just want to be themselves, follow their hearts and passions regardless of what anyone else thinks? Yet, many don’t out of fear of rejection or not fitting in. For all of us, Thelonious Monk left us with striking words of wisdom: “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing – even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”