Wednesday, October 12, 2011

STRAIGHT NO CHASER: T.S. MONK AND STEVE JOBS

"What should we wear tonight?  Sharp as possible."  

"Whatever you think can't be done, somebody will come along and do it.  A genius is the one most like himself."

—Thelonius Monk


One of my favorite jazz artists of all time—as it happens—is the favorite of a lot of people: Thelonious Monk.  His birthday was this past Monday—October 10.  I think due to the tragedy of Steve Jobs passing, and Occupy Wall Street, and any number of newsworthy events, we missed the opportunity to celebrate it the way we ought to...

In an earlier post, I wrote about how some artists—for example, a painter—might attempt to bypass the long, hard road required of his or her discipline and go "straight to Picasso".  By that I mean: they feign informed abstraction.  In other words, the chaotic or challenging nature of the "art" they present has no real substance behind it.  Their creativity doesn't represent a solution (if that's the right word), per se...or at least not one to which they arrived via grappling with a given problem with all due earnestness (or by even having a defined problem to begin with).  Nor does it even truly represent a mystical epiphany or ecstatic expression of any kind.  It's just, quite simply, jive.  Cathartic...maybe...at best...at least for the artist!  But, in my mind, art—great art—is meant to be something more.  Catharsis is all too often selfish: rewarding for the artist, but offering little for the rest of us.  Great art should channel something bigger and more profound than the art itself.  Now: I'm not referencing the value of creativity itself...or of anyone's individual practice for the benefit of themselves.  I'm not referencing the value of, for example,  handicrafts or a well-designed object meant solely for utilitarian purposes.  I'm referencing art...work generated by any human-being who makes a claim at doing something profound—something transformative for us collectively as a species.  A discerning connoisseur of culture can distinguish the difference between real "genius" with this capacity and jive.  When it comes to music, or dance, or theater...or any real art: in my mind, the art is really just a vehicle...to something which wakes us up to something truly magical and actually ineffable.  

And that's why the arts are relevant today.  We like to say they're important because kids score higher on standardized testing, because Mozart makes babies smarter, etc., etc.  That's all true, but, in some ways, that argument is a distraction, a smokescreen...  Proponents of the arts—when it comes to city and school budgets, etc.—they need a politically correct justification.  The real reason the arts are important is—the one we're ashamed to admit: not only are the arts, in essence, our cultural identity, not only do they serve as a sort of transgenerational DNA for ancient and sublime and inexpressible emotions—but they're important because they set before us a deep and wonderful experience that often eludes words (or, in the case of theater and poetry, transcends them)...and this is an experience that can be known by no other means.  Ravi Shankar said: "Through music, one can see God."  I take those words at face value.  And so: I see artists as more or less shamanistic...and their responsibility to humankind and culture is no less profound.

What does this have to do with Thelonious Monk?  Well, I invite you to start by listening to his music.  When Monk stopped playing to give us the capacity to hear the music in our own heads...when—like a Sufi dervish dancer—he spontaneously stepped away from the keyboard to communicate his message (our message) through a completely different modality (like movement!)... When you see or hear an artist trying to channel something too big for the tools in his or her hands, when you witness him or her earnestly struggle with something...to bring us—collectively—there...to that ineffable place...well, that's one heavy cat.  That's the real deal.  It's dangerous for an artist to do that...to explore that space.  It takes great daring, and sometimes an artist engaged in that sort of work fails spectacularly...but it's always moving to be in the presence of this effort.  Artists who skip that process...who, as I say, attempt to go "straight to Picasso"...that's jive.  It doesn't work.  It's dishonest, really.

Monk was arguably crazy.  That's what we said about Van Gogh, too...  I'm sure even Steve Jobs got his share of accusations not too dissimilar.  (Curiously, both Monk and Jobs were earnest enough about what they were doing that they even saw the simple task of getting dressed as a part of the ritual they were attempting to officiate.)  Crazy...that's what we call people who are trying to take us to the next level, and we just don't get it.  

The one thing a connoisseur must be is open-minded.  (Whereas: critics, by definition, fail too often at this task.  A critic comes not ready to witness something as it is, but predisposed to a perspective.)  It's a very tough thing to do: to discern between the jive, and the real...while remaining open-minded—and that's why there are so few real connoisseurs.  I dig Monk because that's the challenge he lays before us...  It's easy for us to know now just how good he was, and how good his music is: history has done the tough work of contextualizing his talent.  There's no risk in making asserting now that Monk was a genius.  But imagine listening to him for the first time—maybe in the 40's, in Minton's Playhouse—when no one else played like him... Would you have known his playing would change music forever?  That's my challenge to you, dear BravoBlog reader: be a true connoisseur.  Know the real deal when it's before you.

This letter by Monk is making the rounds on Facebook.   It's his advice to saxophonist Steve Lacy:


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