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Fly Fishing Jazz: The Monk Goes Fly Fishing

by Kirk Deeter
Thelonius Monk

Thelonius Monk, Wikipedia image

I GRABBED THIS LITTLE BIT of inspiration courtesy of “Lists of Note.” Turns out that iconic jazz icon/pianist Thelonious Monk (who died in 1982) offered some lasting advice in list form to saxophonist Steve Lacy, way back in 1960.

As a sax player myself, I think Monk’s wisdom is, to this day, spot on for the jazz musician. Not surprisingly (to me anyway), his comments and observations easily apply to fly fishing as well.  So I put together some “angles” for Monk’s advice.  Check it out…

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

The Fly Fishing Angle (henceforth FFA): We should all keep beat with the show—understand, and keep pace with what’s unfolding around you.

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

FFA: Have your mind synched up with what your casting arm is doing at all times.

Monk: Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!

FFA: Quit splashing and fumbling and futzing around, and put the casts where they matter.

Monk: Make the drummer sound good.

FFA: Time yourself to the beat of the river, and make your performance reflect positively on the natural environment.

Monk: Discrimination is important.

FFA: Cast dry flies, whenever and wherever you think that’s possible.

Thelonius Monk NotesMonk: You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

FFA: You must walk the hard miles, knee-deep in water, and pay attention in order to understand anything that can and should happen by way of the fancy loops you throw overhead… you dig?

Monk: All reet!

FFA: Not quite sure—working on this one—but if you find it in the river, go with it!

Monk: Monk always know….

FFA: Have confidence. And play/cast with your head, rather than your body.

Monk: It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

FFA: It must always be feeding time, otherwise, the fish won’t eat. (But that doesn’t always have to happen at night.)

Monk: Let’s lift the band stand!!

FFA: Let’s lift the rocks, and the water—endeavor to be supernatural as you fish!!

Monk: I want to avoid the hecklers.

FFA: Don’t read the message boards, or too many blogs (at least not seriously).

Monk: Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

FFA: Let the river dictate the melody, and fall in where and when you think you can have the best effect.

Monk: The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

FFA: The presentation (how your flies behave after they hit the water) is the part that makes the cast look good.

Monk: Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.

FFA: Don’t cast all the time, willy-nilly. Make every cast count, and understand that waiting and watching is as important (or more so) than shooting your line.

Monk: Always leave them wanting more.

FFA: Don’t hammer a run into submission.

Monk: A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.

FFA: Know when to spoon-feed the morsel fly, and when to throw the big enchilada.

Monk: Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.

FFA: Fish in all seasons—dirty water, high water, whatever. Good fishing is not born of merely throwing dry fly casts in perfect conditions.

Monk: When you’re swinging, swing some more!

FFA: When you’re “groovin’” don’t be afraid to switch bugs, try new techniques, and teach yourself some new lessons. (The same fish, the same way, is no lesson at all.)

Monk: What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

FFA: Don’t step in a river unless you’re ready to perform (though what you really wear doesn’t matter at all).

Monk: Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play, & to get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.

FFA: Fish often, and fish hard. Be a “rehearsal” angler—it isn’t always about the show.

Monk: You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, But in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo.)

FFA: Be a player. Fear no cast.

Monk: Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

FFA:  Don’t listen to any of the bogus “rules” put forth by the “gurus” of fly fishing.  There is a way—your own way—and you may indeed be your best teacher.

Monk: They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

FFA:  Fly fishers can always learn from people who are normally excluded from the conversation, including gear-chuckers, beginners, and people who aren’t considered “cool.”

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • ranjit

    Nice articles as a  jazz upright bassist and avid flyfisherman Ive spent the last 16 years also drawing comparisons between the two passions.  I wish I could always be prepared for the fishing and gig it seems that when Im fishing heavy the music starts to slack.  And during winter when there’s time to practice a lot the fishing becomes something I just read about on the net. 

  • Wbanias

    Fun article. I see you really like making parallels with the masters of the 50s & 60s. I find current day fly fishing better ccompares to the fusion era of jazz. New techniques, new technology and hotter instuments, all to utilize and manipulate the same ol’ 12 notes of the chromatic scale. That’s my two cents worth.

    Keep this stuff coming.