Musical advice, as dictated in dribs and drabs by Thelonious
Monk to his saxomaphonist Steve Lacy.
I learned so much from Monk—things that he told me about his
philosophy on life that have helped me—things that I laughed about.
He used to tell me that it’s easier to play fast than slow. When he
first told me that, I thought, “Oh no. There’s no way in the
world.” But Monk was right. It’s harder to play slow and accurate.
He proved it to me. I’d been playing fast with all these groups.
Man, there was no way anyone could tell me that some of the
upstairs tempos I played with Maynard weren’t the end all to
Monk proved it to me on my first night, when I rejoined him in
1961 at the new Five Spot. We were in the back room and Monk said,
“You want to solo and play fast all the time. All drummers are that
way. When you’re playing fast, soloing, and throwing your sticks,
you think you’re really playing. In your estimation, that’s the
hardest. Well, you know, it’s really harder to play slow than it is
to play fast, and to swing and create something while you’re doing
Monk finished talking to me, and we went up to the stand. Monk
had his hat on. The place was packed. He started off the tune with
an extra-slow tempo. I wondered what was going on. Charlie Rouse
came in and played the ensemble; Monk jumped off the piano and
started dancing during Charlie’s solo. He danced over to me and
said, “Okay. Get to me now. Swing it, pal.” I was wondering if I
was doing it. I had to concentrate so hard on the music that I
couldn’t look at the audience. I couldn’t look at the door. I
couldn’t even look to see what time it was. I had to swing. I
thought, “Oh, my God.” I was playing slow, which was the hardest
thing for me. Monk would dance up to me and say, “Okay Frankie,
come on now. Let me see you swing now. Shit. I told you it ain’t
easy to swing when you’re playing slow. I told you that, didn’t I?
I said to myself, “Well, I’ll just keep the time and get with
John Ore. I know I’ll never get a solo.” Monk played his little
solo after Charlie. Then he jumped up and said, “You got it. Drum
solo.” And John Ore was still playing the bass. Monk said, “It’s a
solo, John. Frankie’s got it. Go on, Frank. Wail.” And John
stopped. The tempo was way down here. I thought, “What do I do?”
I’d been used to playing all this fast stuff. It was so fast that,
even if I’d miss a beat or lose my ideas for two measures, it
wouldn’t mean anything because the people wouldn’t know it. But the
tempo was way down.
Monk said, “Drum solo. Let me hear something, Frank. Don’t be
bullshittin’.” I was trying to do things that I couldn’t do. Monk
said, “And keep the time. Here’s the tempo. Don’t play some shit
that you don’t know nothing about.” I didn’t even know how to put a
paradiddle in there, because I’d never played a paradiddle that
slow. And whatever I played, Monk said that he wanted it to make
sense. I couldn’t do any of my rudiments. It’s a different musical
approach that I’d never attacked. And all these people were looking
at me. Tony Williams, Tootie Heath, Clifford Jarvis—all these
drummers were out there, because they’d heard me play a little on
the first gig I had with Monk. They knew I’d been with Maynard and
Duke. Here I was coming back with Monk. They figured that I was
going to be wailing. I was thinking the same thing, and Monk put
this on me. Do you know what? It not only made me look like an ass,
but I also played like an ass, and it really showed me how
handicapped I was.