Thelonious Monk as Wittgenstein of the Piano

Mostly the comments on YouTube range from the stupid to the forgettable, but once in a while there’s a gem.

I was listening to my CD Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, a charmingly faithful (for Monk) rendition of some Ellington classics then decided to peruse YouTube for some live performances, of which there are several. I found this great rendition of one of Ellington’s best melodies “Sophisticated Lady,” the tune that Charles Mingus wanted to be playing when he died.

One of the comments says, “Monk lays the foundations bare, the Wittgenstein of the jazz piano.” It’s an illuminating comparison for someone like myself. Thelonious and Ludwig both put into play the same oppositions. They both seem to stand outside the tradition like complete innocents (I once had a student write a paper referring to Plato as Mr. Plato); yet both are deeply traditional. Both have an ability to say something very simple that is also very profound. Monk plays a lot of Ellington with a simplicity on the left hand that sounds almost like an apprentice stride-piano player; but on the right hand he’s stretching the melody as far it can be faithfully stretched. Then there are moments when it sounds like he’s not just playing the piece but understanding it at the same time. With Wittgenstein, he can sound like an apprentice presocratic one minute and then like someone who’s completed Western philosophy the next. They both are completely original in style. I recently read on a superficial (but extremely popular) professional philosophy blog something about philosophical style. Various clever morons weighed in on how philosophers should be clear and precise, and cited banal examples of “clarity.” The fact is that philosophical style is like musical style: it needs to strive towards putting the entire personality into play. Monk and Wittgenstein are “clear and distinct” in their approaches, but they are also richly human in them. Nobody wants a banal clarity. It’s easy to be simple, and it’s easy to be complex. The goal is to be complexly simple. As Picasso says, “It takes a long, long time for the old to be young.”

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2 Responses to Thelonious Monk as Wittgenstein of the Piano

  1. Paul says:

    Isn’t (Paul) Wittgenstein himself the Wittgenstein of the piano ? Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that there wasn’t much to explain to music. If Ludwig Wittgenstein were a professionnal musician, wouldn’t that be a successful Wittgenstein (free from philosophical question, playing, practicing and at last, not doing philosophy ?).

  2. Wonderful point. My point was simply that Wittgenstein is to philosophy as Monk is to jazz. But I do have a soft spot for Paul . . .

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