Stuffy Turkey: Thelonious Monk, Thanksgiving, and Music’s Place at the Table

Posted on November 26, 2009 by


While I hate to run over The Q’s eye-opening introduction to love, dating, and internet-savvy in the 21st century below, I’m going to have to bump his latest take on contemporary issues with a tribute to a great from our past.

Today is Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving will always remind me of one very important thing: Thelonious Monk.

I come from a very celebration-centric family, so Thanksgiving has always consisted of large gatherings of family, friends, friends of friends and plenty of food. Years ago, one such friend of a friend was an elderly man who was vaguely related to a great aunt in some way, and so invited to our dinner. He was just another body; I don’t remember actively thinking about him until he excused himself from the table, sat down at the piano in the corner, and began to play.

When someone asked why he was playing in the middle of the dinner, he replied, seriously, “Good music!” Right. Good music. Some shouted in agreement; some exchanged looks.

When someone else asked what he was playing, he replied, “Thelonious Monk. Stuffy Turkey.”

(Please listen to this.)

At the time, I was only about 9 or 10 years old, so the fact that he was playing something called “Stuffy Turkey” while I was eating turkey was all I needed to be content with the situation.

But now, at 24, that titular wordplay means far less than everything else that came out of that man playing a piano for the rest of the night.

That night was the first time that I ever heard the name Thelonious Monk. The dude played just the piano part of Stuffy Turkey – imagine that if you can.

It was the first time I’d ever heard anything played on a piano that wasn’t dense and boring in the way that Chopin and Mozart and other classical music can be dense and boring for a 10 year old.

It was the first time I saw my grandmother and grandfather dance some slow, close version of a waltz. The first time I saw my mom and dad, holding hands and laughing, disappear out the back door. The first time I saw my quiet, reserved aunt belt out some old church song.

I’ve since become a humble fan of Thelonious Monk’s music, and taken an even more humble interest in his life and his genius and his beautiful struggles. But on that first night, when that unremarkable man first insisted that we, as a group of people who had gathered to celebrate, enjoy “good music”, Thelonious Monk was less a musician or a man, and much more a catalyst. His Stuffy Turkey, playing over the heads of persons who had no idea who he was, opened us up. It shifted us.

On that night, it transformed us.

And isn’t that music’s amazing potential? That, at it’s best, music has the power to completely warp the reality we are wedged in, and transport us to a completely different reality? That it can enlighten us?

So this Thanksgiving: Gather. Eat. Drink, laugh, celebrate, and love. Make love.

But please, do all of that with the help of some good music. Really good music.

Blackstar. Definition.