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Nice guy, mean guy


I have a couple of speeds, nice guy and mean guy (insert any harsh or curse word meaning “mean guy” here).

The way it usually works is, I say what I want, think, or need in a “nice guy” tone and am often misunderstood. So I escalate the tone to what I think is louder, more direct, or more firm, and say it again, but then it comes out mean-sounding to others. This is usually a total accident, although I am certainly not perfect on this.

The blessing of my current life is that I have learned how to teach fully in nice-guy tone. I can be direct, aware, constructively critical, and in charge of a piano lesson, while staying nice about it. It gets students to like and trust me, and to challenge themselves to do better.

This was not the case in the past, and so if you were my student in the old days, I am so sorry. You can’t change the past, and I am absolutely positive that I annoyed, angered or upset a number of students. I had to learn the hard way.

The same thing has happened with bands. I have been a sideman more than a leader, so the situations were different when this happened, but it totally happened, and some of you probably know and have talked about some of my instances. When I was drinking I could be moved to anger on a gig when misunderstood. That’s when the good point is totally lost. I stopped drinking, by the way. Appropriate apologies have been made as far as I know, but please let me know if I’ve missed one. I have been around here for a long time.

Personal life, same. I say what I mean, but if I am quiet and nice, it can easily go unnoticed or misunderstood. I am working on it.

I am a fan of Thelonious Monk, and since I often identify as a jazz pianist, his music is of course a part of the lexicon of great compositions that I learn in order to learn some of this great Black American Music (to borrow Nicholas Payton’s term-all due respect to the masters, modern and old-school).

When you are a white boy from the suburbs, and you watch the movie on Monk called Straight No Chaser, you do not tend to understand his language at first. No reason why I should understand black slang from Harlem, from a guy with intense feeling and problematic mental and emotional issues, albeit a true genius.

After watching that movie about 30 times in the 1990’s, I started to understand him, and I realized that the genius goes not just into the music, but into everything about the guy, including how he communicates verbally. If you get the phrasing of the speech, it is very to the point, the most amount of information with the least amount of words possible. You just gotta know him a little to get it. Genius. And it’s the same whether he’s talking about his music, complementing a friends clothing, or kidding around back stage. There are also points where he gets frustrated because of being misunderstood. Interesting. I learned that I am emotionally and verbally like a music legend, in some ways. This gave me comfort, help on my musical journey, and inspiration that a seemingly strange person from the outside, can actually be a very original, interesting and different artist with something really great to say. I guess that’s how art works, actually.

Go watch the movie and listen to some Monk.

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