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T.S. Monk on courage and composition

T.S. Monk, who will play in Duluth at Weber Music Hall Friday, talks passionately about music and about jazz. In fact, he is bold about jazz, unlike what he perceives in some other musicians. He says many young musicians who are in hip hop and ro...

T.S. Monk, who will play in Duluth at Weber Music Hall Friday, talks passionately about music and about jazz. In fact, he is bold about jazz, unlike what he perceives in some other musicians. He says many young musicians who are in hip hop and rock will tell you that with gusto.

But not some young jazz players. "Jazz is like people are half scared to do it," he said.

Here's what Monk had to say about some other topics of interest.

On being musically eclectic

Monk said that his famous father had no prerequisite on what they listened to in the home, and while many were disappointed when the younger Monk chose R&B when he started his career, his father wasn't among them.

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Here's what Monk had to say about the music he absorbed when people like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were hanging around the house: "I grew up with 'Bird' (Parker) and Miles, and Art Blakey gave me my drums, and Max Roach gave me my lessons, but at the very same time, I went to private school. I got exposed to the Byrds, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. ... I was just right there musically with everything, and when I brought all that stuff home, Thelonius dug all that stuff, because true jazz artists listen to everything around them, because the name of the game is that you should increase your vocabulary constantly."

That, the senior Monk said, meant listening to all the things that are going on around you.

On the composing process as a drummer

Monk describes basically three methods of jazz composition.

"I know a lot of guys that write melodies and then flesh out from a melody. ... I know a lot of guys that hear (chord) changes in their head, and they write a melody on changes, so they flesh it out from the changes. I know a lot of drummers, I know a lot of funk people, that write from bass lines and flesh out a composition from a bass line," he said. "As a drummer, when I was very, very young, I initially heard bass lines and fleshed things out from a bass line, but in the past 20 years I've found myself writing basically from at least those three perspectives."

While he doesn't have a set formula and used to write more as a funk artist, he has found one method he prefers. "For me, I think that hearing some changes is where I'm most comfortable," he said.

When asked if having drums as his primary instrument gave him a greater focus on rhythm, he said, "Definitely. There's no doubt about that. And that's the way I want it to be because I'm a rhythm guy -- I got into music because of rhythm."

Courage

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Talking about focusing on rhythm led Monk to talk about courage and its role in jazz. "I just write what I write," he said. "I mean, the bottom line on this jazz thing is that you're supposed to be whoever the hell you are and have the guts to put your stuff out there and have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the reality that sometimes people just don't dig it."

He called courage one of the fundamentals of jazz, and the most difficult quality -- just as in life.

He said when he does clinics for young musicians he explains it with a story: You and your friend play trumpet, and it's the Christmas show -- all your family and friends are there. The rhythm section kicks in, and you friend takes the solo -- he plays really high, really loud and really fast, and the crowd, including all your loved ones, goes crazy for it.

"What makes a jazz musician is the moment of truth that arrives," Monk says, a window of maybe two or four measures to decide whether you will do what you know will make you loved or do what you really want to do.

Monk said, "What makes a jazz musician is you also have to say, 'I don't feel like that. I feel like playing very low and very slow and very soft.' What do you do? The difference between the Coltranes and the Monks ... and the Parkers and the Davises and all the rest of us is that in that moment, that moment of the unknown, you take that shot to see if you'll be loved doing what you want to do. And you know what? Every kid I've ever told that story to knows exactly what I'm talking about. Because everybody has had that moment. Most of us acquiesce."

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