Who is Thelonious Monk, you might ask?

            Just behind my personal favorite – Phineas Newborn, Jr. – he’s the greatest jazz pianist to walk the earth (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Vince Guaraldi and Dave Brubeck, please forgive me!).

            If you’re not familiar, Google him and then…listen.

            Monk was an amazingly bright, talented cat.  As you’ll see, his theories apply to cinematographers as much as they do to any musician.  Despite the brevity of the observations, there’s a great deal to unpack here.  This thread will continue for awhile, so be sure to come back for a full accounting.

            And this’s not for students only.  It’s for everyone who thinks they know something about making movies.

            Now, to the wisdom

            Just because you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.

            Replace the word “drummer” with the name of any other craft and you’ll get the drift.  We’re all part of a team.  Just because you’re not a boom operator doesn’t mean you don’t have to cooperate (keep time) with the sound department in order to get the job done.  This applies across the board and also suggests a certain mastery over what you do.  Fall out of sync with your collaborators and the whole effort goes to pieces!

            Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play.

                                               (that bullshit)

            Stay centered.  Don’t get caught up in the moment and remember what you’re trying to accomplish.  Think of the script as the score, the story points as the melody.  And that’s where the bullshit comes in.  Yeah, we have to stick to it.  But not to the point where it inhibits creativity.  Just as with music, you often make your best contribution when you depart from the established structure in some way.

            Stop playing all those wierd (sic) notes, play the melody!

            That said, when you choose to step off on your own, don’t just do something crazy or outlandish because you’re able to.  That would be mistaking movement for progress.  Make sure to keep your improvisation relevant to the greater effort otherwise you’re only fooling yourself.

            Make the drummer sound good.

            Our job is to not just make the movie look good, it’s to make the director look good.  We do that by supporting them in every way we can.  Directing is often a lonely pursuit; the more effective we are in helping that individual is the more we ultimately help ourselves.  According to the demands of certain days, this edict might expand to include most anyone else on the crew.  Hopefully there are others who are thinking of us in the same way!



  1. I love this post so much! I was not aware of Thelonious Monk, but his words of wisdom are definitely relevant in any aspect of life. Lots of life is quite jazz: you can plan as much as you want, but then you must go with the flow and master the art of improv.
    I recently worked on a feature in Connecticut with the great Brian Herzlinger and I was so happy to be on set and I loved everyone there, working hard towards one goal: make a piece of art that people will watch and appreciate, even if they don’t know us.
    I love the fact that the watchers, like being on the boat, can see the top of the iceberg, without knowing the hard work done underwater.
    Hundreds of minds, from different cultures, worlds, native languages, backgrounds… all of them working as one big machine to deliver one product… Art doesn’t get more beautiful than this.
    And Jazz is similar: you plan and improv, because that’s how life should work.
    Now, I gotta check Thelonious Monk’s work!

  2. Luigi – Monk was a very wise man and you’ll see there’s a lot to learn from him in the coming posts!

  3. With all of the legendary jazz musicians, it is extremely difficult to
    determine a favorite. Thelonious Monk though has to be at the top
    of the list. Unfortunately all of the greats have passed on and I
    wished I had seen more of them. I was fortunate to see Dave
    Brubeck perform beside his two musician sons before his passing.
    Also saw Jimmy Cobb at the age of 90 still performing in 2019.
    He was the drummer for Miles Davis on his “Kind of Blue” album (1959).
    Unfortunately he passed in 2020. Most of these artists never struck
    it rich and lived hard lives on the road. They basically lived for the
    love of their music and never aspired to do anything else. Fortunately they
    left a wealth of music for future generations. And in Monk’s case, music
    and many words of wisdom. Check out the documentary Thelonious
    Monk: “Straight No Chaser” about his life . Richard- It was great you
    brought up the topic of Thelonious Monk and how his thoughts relate
    to life and movie making!

  4. Richard, Thanks for recommending Phineas Newborn Jr.
    I have no idea why I never spent much time listening to
    his music. I think he’s now at the top of my list too!
    What seems to separate him from his contemporaries was
    his exceptional skills at playing the piano. A very versatile artist.
    His music seemed to evolve over time and had a purpose.
    He could go from playing pure jazz to classical American music.
    His 1974 solo piano album really reveals how great he was.

  5. Ken – Phineas Newborn was an under-recognized genius. His album – “A World of Piano” – is a great one to start with. “Lush Life” and “Juicy Lucy” are two of my favorites!

  6. Richard, Thanks!
    Will check out those albums.
    On the subject of jazz greats, does Kenny Burrell still perform
    in the Los Angeles area? Believe he would be 90 years old.

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