Monday, April 16, 2007

Monk, Ambiance, and Apologetics

I recently purchased (for a very low price) yet another recording by Thelonious Monk, the inimitable and unforgettable jazz pianist, called simply, "Monk." Listening to it in my car (which is not graced with a world-class sound system), I wondered if I had listened to enough Monk. Did he even sound cloying?

Then, tonight, I listened again, but this time through headphones in my reading study in the basement. The magic reappeared; it is one of the first with Charlie Rouse's on tenor sax, one of Monk's most apt interpreters (although not a virtuoso in his own right, as was Monk's most famous, if short-lived, collaborator, John Coltrane). The collaborative genius, the incomparable Monk feel of the his compositions, the gentle swing, and quirkiness of his sense of time were all there in their glory. How did I miss it before?

Monk doesn't play that well in the car. One is too distracted by driving, and the music cannot be heard, cannot be appreciated, for its subtleties in that ambiance. Joe Satriani can; Thelonious Monk cannot. (Yes, horrified jazz fans, I do appreciate Joe as a master of his--admittedly lesser--genre: instrumental heavy metal guitar.)

The same is true for the best apologetics (or Christian witness in general): it requires the proper ambiances to be received properly. One needs to carefully listen, to weigh ideas, and to discern connections between thoughts. That is, one must attend critically in the proper environment. Certainly, God is his sovereignty can convince a ruined soul of the truth and attractiveness of the gospel in any setting, but an engaged discussion--with a minimum of distractions--makes the most sense for apologetic interactions.

It may be that much of our defending and commending the gospel--when we attempt it at all--rings hollow because the setting is wrong. We need to bring apologetics into the home, into conviviality and into deep conversations. And apologists need to develop their chops, such that they are worth listening to in the first place.

Monk found a voice that was uniquely his and that was true to the art of jazz. But one must listen hard to hear it. When you do, the joy follows. How many apologists have found a voice that it theirs (given their spiritual gifts), is true to the Bible, and in which one hears the joy and beauty of heaven?



ChrisB said...

...apologists need to develop their chops, such that they are worth listening to in the first place.

Any thoughts on how to accomplish that?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


hobie said...

While the Monk-cum-apologist angle seems a little contrived (okay, so all preachers have chops; I get the jazz perspective on all this, I guess), any chance to consider the art of Thelonious Monk is probably time well spent.

It is probably important for you poor, misunderstood apologetics geniuses to recognize and console yourself with the fact that not everybody got Monk. Monk’s approach to music was as different as his approach to everything else in his life. Upon examination it appears that he used conventional chords and rhythms, but you really can’t believe that when you listen to his performances. The chords seem bent, the rhythmic patterns unrepeatable. He had a way of emphasizing notes in a chord (“playing the notes you really mean,” he called it) that transformed the chord into something different, something seemingly personal. Musicians constantly and famously complained and then later marveled at working through Monk’s compositions. Consider that none less than Sonny Rollins was involved in the production of the album Brilliant Corners, the title selection of which required over 20 takes and much editing to finally complete the finished work we hear today.

Great story on Monk (I forget the source): He was in a studio in 1957, recording what was to be Monk’s Music, arguably the greatest record he ever made with horns. His sidemen included the greatest tenor legend of his day, Coleman Hawkins, and the man who was to be the greatest tenor of all time, John Coltrane.

Monk had written music for this event that the Two Tenors were clearly not enjoying. Finally Hawkins, with Trane in tow, approached Monk and asked him what he wanted them to do with this music. “You’re the great Coleman Hawkins, aren’t you? The man who invented the tenor saxophone?” Monk questioned. Hawkins, never one to give to give away a compliment, replied affirmatively. “And you’re the great John Coltrane, aren’t you?” Monk continued. Coltrane was much more self-effacing in his response.

“Well,” Monk continued, “the music is in the horn. Between the two of you, you ought to be able to work it out.” That was it. The music is in the horn. Everytime I hear Monk’s Music, I think to myself: it certainly is.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Those are astute insights into Monk, despite your dig.

Paul D. Adams said...
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Paul D. Adams said...

On "developing chops....READ."
So very true. After playing professionally for more than twenty years, I can honestly say that the more I listened to good musicians the better I got at playing. Imagine what kind of guitar player would turn out from a steady diet of Neil Young or Bob Dylan instead of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Biréli Lagrène, just to name a few!

Shawn White said...

Amen to what Paul Adams said in reference to playing guitar. When I was performing full-time I always encouraged guys in the band to listen to anything and everything they could get their ears on - didn't matter if it was good or bad because you can learn from all of it - either what to do or what not to do.

As far as reading goes - I wish I had the time to read everything on my list, but alas I doubt that will happen. I wonder if there will be books in heaven? :)

If not, then I hope at least chess is available!