How Many Dominant Sevenths Does It Take to Win a Monk Competition?

In the wake of posting about "Well You Needn't," I've kept thinking about Thelonious Monk's chord progressions. My proposal that Monk didn't play dominant or major sevenths on the bridge could have extended to the A sections, as there is no F7 in the first bar. While dominants do show up in the middle and end (the whole note left hand “thumb line” uses both sevenths), the "F7" at the top of the Real Book chart is just as wrong as everything else.

At least since Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, it has become standard to include a seventh in almost all chords used in conventional jazz. But Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and other canonical greats used plenty of triads and sixth chords.

Adding a seventh to a chord allows for a scalar approach to improvised melody. Each seventh chord has a related chord scale. Using a scale is a great way to play -- but it is not the only way.

Sometimes chord scale playing can result in a tame, standardized way to improvise, where everything sounds the same. Looking at what Monk really played can be inspiring when searching for other solutions.


My argument against competitions is basically same thing. To my ears, there had been an astonishing amount of agreement about what jazz really is in most youthful swinging jazz since 1990. That agreement was one reason I rebelled against it. I just couldn’t see it as the jazz tradition -- not my jazz tradition, anyway. I was delighted to be lifted out of the discussion entirely by Reid Anderson and David King in 2001.

It is crucial to remember that my writing on DTM reflects my own experience, passions, and blind spots. On Twitter and in the forum, several competition veterans said they played exactly how they wanted to play, in a non-conventional manner, and won anyway.

Kudos. I could have never won a competition. Indeed, my joke about playing “Confirmation” in front of Carl Allen was loaded with my own fears. Even though I’ve recorded “Confirmation” twice, with Billy Hart and Tootie Heath, I still wouldn’t want to play that in front of a bebop jury. Forget it! You couldn’t pay me enough.

And that’s who my post “Please the Commitee” was for: not the idiosyncratic talent with enough chops to win anyway, but those looking for something more vulnerable, don’t have those chops, and are wondering if they should think more about passing the bar. In my opinion, don’t worry about passing the bar. Keep looking inside yourself. We have enough cats who can play, but not enough that connect with the bigger canvas of music, the arts, and life in general.


Several took my sleepiness at the drum jury to mean I didn’t like those drummers. Not at all!

Let me put it this way: If I was on that jury, it would be impossible for me not to agree with whatever Roy Haynes and Ben Riley said. I love and respect them too much. I could not look them in the eye and and disagree with them.

And Haynes and Riley are old and potentially cranky. Just one Ben Riley story: Some time ago, a great straight-ahead pianist was playing a week with Riley. Before the second night, two minutes before the set, Riley growled at the pianist, “Don’t play any of that Herbie Hancock shit.”

I hired Buster Williams and Ben Riley last year for a couple of nights at Smalls, because I love them so much, I’m studying jazz, and I want to get a last taste of that kind of swinging greatness while it is on the planet. I also modified my playing in the extreme, in a way I couldn’t have when I was competition age.

I also, it must be said, got my ass kicked. I advise everyone to hire Williams and Riley while they can.

Of course Riley doesn’t want to hear any “Herbie Hancock shit.” And he’s also right! There’s too much Herbie out there now, everyone plays like that. Indeed, for my money, there is too much Herbie in the pianist he was talking about.

Whether he’s right about “Herbie Hancock shit” or not, he’s almost certainly not open to a bunch of new music, and why should he be? He played the new music with Monk and others in the 60’s.

I am glad Ben Riley is getting paid, though. When people have asked me to judge competitions, I’m astonished at the red carpet offered. Big money, a gig, swanky hotel, star treatment, etc. (I always turn it down, for obvious reasons.)

Ben Riley deserves all the red carpet he can get. I just wish he didn’t have to weigh in on the relative merits of youthful talent to get it.


I know, of course, that DTM is not going to stop jazz competitions! And, honestly, I wouldn’t want that responsibility, either. Surely some good does come out of them.

But I’d like room to keep asking the tough questions. Do competitions grow our audience? Do they help innovation? Are schools that train the young to win competitions a vicious cycle?

Those scoffing at those queries should look at the much longer history of classical piano competitions. Again, I recommend The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by Joseph Horowitz, but admittedly that's from a few years ago now. More recently and online there is 2009's "The Dark Side of Piano Competitions" by Michael Johnson and 2010's "Extreme Chopin" by Paul Wells.

There’s also a superb chapter by Charles Rosen in Piano Notes, “Conservatories and Contests,” which is shockingly honest about how some of the committee’s decisions get made.

On one occasion, many years ago at the piano competition at Leeds, I was on the jury: one pianist gave a tremendous showing of himself in the first round, and played very poorly in the second. My feeling was that one splendid performance deserves further hearing, and I lobbied successfully to have him succeed to the next stage. (You are not supposed to lobby on the jury...but it is almost always done.) He was subsequently voted into the final almost unanimously...

On this occasion the jury could not have been more distinguished...They disagreed radically about almost every contestant...It was Annie Fischer, a pianist for whom I (like almost everyone else) had the utmost admiration, who gave a good mark to the pianist I thought should get another chance; she was rather taken with a good-looking Korean contestant, so I voted for her candidate and she voted for mine. In the next round, I was sitting next to her while the Korean was playing, and she turned to me and said softly: “He isn’t very good, is he?” “No,” I replied, trying to invest my reply with the proper melancholy.

Perhaps jazz judges are always above being swayed by personal interests, sex, sex appeal, race, and other earthly matters when looking for the “best.” At any rate, none of those factors matter to Haynes, Riley, Erskine, Blade, Carrington, or Allen, right?

They don't matter to me, anyway. I'm above all that. I promise! Especially if I'm getting paid five grand to judge you and I'm playing a gig later in front of the winner.

Joking aside, it’s certainly true that as a contestant I’d rather play for jazz cats than uptight classical musicians. At least with the jazz cats some fluffs are allowed, and, if all else fails, you can play some blues.


This is my final comment about jazz competitions, at least for now. However, much more could be discussed, especially since I have cited absolutely no historical empirical data here (who's won, what are the comps anyway, etc.). I've seen rumors of this topic being picked up by Peter Hum and Patrick Jarenwattananon, so if you've come late to this party and want to weigh in, keep your eyes peeled.


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