Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Not Judged 

Monk at 100:

1) New Yorker Culture Desk general audience essay.

2) An opinionated and wonky look at the canon.



A few years ago, I created a controversy on DTM by querying the validity of jazz competitions, specifically the elite competition curated by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It was even picked up at NPR with a headline taken straight from my original post:  “Could Thelonious Monk Have Won His Own Competition?” (Everything from old DTM during that brouhaha is archived here.)

Jeff Levenson, who calls me (rightfully, I guess) a “troublemaker,” somehow thought it was a good idea for me to be a preliminary judge for this year’s Monk piano competition. A stronger person than me might have resisted, but in my case checking the box, “another one of life’s unlikely ironies,” is always a powerful inducement. (The ironies are compounded now that the competition is delayed: Read Nate Chinen’s article.)

More seriously, it is clear that post-TBP I will be involved in the larger jazz community as a curator and educator. I need experience on the sharp end. Also, I thought the process would help me teach my students at NEC.

There’s still no doubt in my mind the “jazz competitions” are flawed. This music frankly needs idiosyncratic saviors who needn’t bother with filling a report in order to be approved by committee.

However, we are where we are. As I wrote at the time of the original negative posting, I wouldn’t want to be in the position of cancelling all the competitions. Winning a competition is a possible career path in a time of dwindling options. I know some winners, like Josh Redman, Melissa Aldana, and Ambrose Akinmusire, and they are fabulous. And for those living in a smaller community, just the chance to come to a big town and hang with other jazzers is a remarkable opportunity whatever the final outcome on the scoreboard.


There were two other judges, Jim McNeely and Allen Farnham. Jeff Levenson and Leonard Brown smoothly ran the actual process. Jeff explained the rules, Leonard played the tracks from an iTunes playlist on a stereo in a small room at the New School. Both were careful not to say anything about any of the music we heard. Don Sickler was also there to observe and assess. Don might have offered one or two mild comments over the course of two days after he heard the judges discussing a track but there was nothing pointed or directional. In the end, Jim, Allen, and I were absolutely in charge of the nominations.

From more than 100 tapes we needed to agree on 10, plus five alternates as not every competitor ends up being able to attend. I also suspect there are diversity concerns, which I totally approve of. We can’t have 10 white men up there, that wouldn’t be right. At any rate, the preliminary listening was done totally blind.

Jim and Allen were easy to work with. Jim is a former teacher of mine (DTM interview) and Allen is a seasoned pro with a lot of experience as a performer and educator. I dug Jeff, Leonard, and Don too. The whole gig was relaxed and fun.

While the overall level was very high and there were only a handful of tapes that lacked any merit whatsoever, the three judges had no problem agreeing on the top 10. There was essentially no serious debate. No one had an axe to grind. Jim offered one piece of sage advice that I took to heart: “I try to imagine this person playing onstage with the house rhythm section in front of Herbie Hancock or Harold Mabern.” The final choices were pretty obvious. Even getting the five alternates was essentially a unified process.

This level of consensus was a real relief, as I had pre-game fears that I’d need to “stand up for the idiosyncratic genius” against “the voice of conservatism.” Those fears were groundless, as the couple of entries I had marked down to “protect” were in everybody’s top 10.

For the five alternates I conceded one entry that that Jim and Allen liked more than me. I read aloud my notes: “Slick and boring.” Somebody said, “Perfect for a competition!” We all cracked up.

In a war, when your buddies are dead and dismembered around you, you resort to gallows humor in order to survive. More than 100 audition tapes is not a war but I’ve got to honest with you, the team cracked some jokes.

Here’s the number one thing I want to say to future applicants: Your tape needs to reach out to us past our boredom and jokes. Undoubtedly you made the tape listening to every detail with interest, but part of the committee’s job is clear out the dead wood as quickly as possible. If it isn’t at least a bit sparkly at the top of tracks, the account will be marked “no sale” and the committee will move on to the next victim.

I don’t think we missed anybody who deserved to be there. But here are four things that didn’t help anyone’s cause:

Long intros. Bell tolling a pedal point for a ballad for a minute. “Rain” intro. “Cloud” intro. “Pointillistic” intro. We’ve heard it all before, we want to hear you play the tune already.

Counterpoint. Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch are remarkably influential! However, busy two-handed counterpoint is not really consecrated in the language yet. There’s a reason 100 out of 100 classic jazz albums don’t have two-handed piano counterpoint, and that’s because it is very hard to get that stuff to lay right with the rhythm section. (Certainly most rhythm sections don’t like playing with it.) Brad and Fred are brilliant, but they also worked up to that kind of playing after gigging with serious swingers, and I doubt either of them would jump into doing it with a house rhythm section in front of Herbie Hancock and Harold Mabern. Future applicants might want to know that too much counterpoint provoked a certain amount of joking commentary from the committee. (It didn’t stop a few worthies from getting in, but there was at least one case that was borderline.)

Terrible fidelity and pianos. Tapes that are really hard to listen to are abandoned more quickly than tapes that sound pretty good. I’d usually say that an in-tune piano isn’t all that important for jazz trio playing but after 100-plus tapes in a row: Yeah. Tune the piano.

Arrangements of Monk. All the competitors needed to include a Monk tune in their submission. I asked Jim and Allen straight out: “Do you arrange Monk tunes when you play them on a gig?” They both said no. Personally, I would kill myself before I changed the basic structure of something by Thelonious Sphere Monk. Hey, some people like that stuff. Herbie Hancock himself played a mediocre arrangement of “Well you Needn’t.” However, at least this time around, the committee liked hearing Monk played straight. No “deconstructing” or “rethinking of Monk” was required. After all, it is hard enough to play the tunes to begin with! (Also, please play his changes of “‘Round Midnight,” not the ones from the Real Book. #facepalm)

More generally:

If stride piano is an overt reference it can’t only be historical (“just like it was in 1935!”) but needs to be leavened by a modernist ethos like Jaki Byard, Roger Kellaway, or, of course, Monk himself.

Tunes like “Beautiful Love” or “It Could Happen to You” are awfully generic. Conventional performances really can sound like a bunch of college students looking at an app. Contradicting what I wrote about Monk tunes: If “Beautiful Love” or “It Could Happen to You” are your favorite tunes, then maybe a fancy arrangement might help.

However, I was surprised to hear how many standards had metric games in the Wynton Marsalis Standards Vol. 1 tradition. They were fine, the committee didn’t take any points off, but we didn’t add any points, either. For myself, I also wouldn’t want to hand Rodney Whittaker and Carl Allen (or whoever ends up being the house rhythm section) a three-page chart on a standard with a bunch of hits phrased in 6/4 or whatever. “Great songs played simply and directly” might really be the best approach.

Did any repertoire choices “help?”  Two people played relatively obscure Bud Powell pieces without much improvisation, “Sure Thing” and “Dusky ’n Sandi.” All three judges liked this. One submission included an excellent performance of Paul Motian’s “Mumbo Jumbo.” This might of been more my wheelhouse than Jim or Allen’s, but I was genuinely impressed. Thinking about it later I decided that Powell and Motian were the right kind of rep to submit: Powell was Monk’s great friend and student and they share something brutally honest and surreal in their harmony. Motian couldn’t win a drum competition any more than Monk could win a piano competition. (I’m not planning to do this again, so you can’t game the system by submitting Paul Motian tunes, although the thought of 50 tapes with Motian compositions showing up for the next round does fill me with a kind of devilish glee.)

One track was supposed to feature comping. Don Sickler made a point before we started about how some virtuosi don’t know how to comp. Well, truthfully, out of all the tapes, I didn’t hear any comping that I thought was that good. Admittedly, knowing how to comp might be something that only comes with experience. (If I can comp now, it’s only because I’ve gotten to play with Billy Hart for over fifteen years.) The committee sat though quite a few bars of “creative and interactive” comping, not to mention many stretches of a pianist “laying out.” This isn’t what we wanted to hear. We wanted to hear if the player could blend with the bass and drums, play clave sentences, and support someone like George Coleman or Sonny Stitt. Admittedly, the comping section of the audition tape played very little part in this year’s final tabulation, although in the future I could see a different committee paying more attention to this topic. At any rate, it’s just something you should be thinking about, competition or no competition. Jim has a valuable aphorism: “You solo for show, but you comp for dough.”


One brave soul included Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” on their tape. It’s a wonderful piece and the performance was pretty good. I complained about blowing over the song’s parallel lydian chords to Jim, who said, “You can sort of find common tones. I played this a lot with Joe and over time figured out some interesting textural stuff to do.”

I asked Jim if Henderson had ever given out a chart. “No, I just knew if from the record. It was a pretty organic process. I loved his music, learned the records, and when I finally played with him, I knew his songs.”

Compared to Jim McNeely’s experience, entering a contest to win a prize in jazz piano is not an organic process. However, as noted above, this is where we are. The world that Jim grew up is long gone.

“Black Narcissus” is a hard song, and in my experience a hard one to learn from an LP. (The Real Book chart I grew up was missing several passing chords, and I had no idea how to find them.) When Jim was starting out, simply being capable of learning “Black Narcissus” was a kind of filter. Most people couldn’t learn “Black Narcissus.” The few that could had a shot at moving to New York and playing with Joe Henderson.

Now accurate lead sheets of “Black Narcissus” are just a click away. It’s certainly cool to work on that poetic and challenging masterpiece. But if you submit it to a jazz competition, keep in mind that the judges might not be so impressed with your hipness: They might have played it with Joe Henderson, for example. (I’m not defaming the submission, which, as I say above, was good.)

Today, a young McNeely-type’s love for Joe Henderson won’t get them a gig with Joe Henderson. But “love” is still the most important operative element. The danger of a competition is that it kills off love. One finalist from several years ago told me that the months they sweated trying to enter and win the Monk competition were among the worst months of their lives.

The great virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin explained the problem with piano competitions to me thusly: “You are supposed to put your soul into the music, and you end up getting told that some souls are better than other souls.”

And that’s European classical music, where everyone plays the same notes! The complaint is doubly true for jazz, where we all improvise and compose our own notes from our own one-off souls.

There were a mass of tapes, and there were plenty of great players who didn’t make the cut. I’d like to close by encouraging those getting a rejection letter in the mail to double down on love. If you truly love this music — if you are willing to die for this music — nurture your idiosyncratic soul and re-commit to making a contribution. You didn’t lose anything by not making it to the finals, your soul isn’t lesser than other souls. Keep at it with love in your heart.

If you want to support Do the Math, subscribe to Transitional Technology.