Thelonius Monk was an Applied Mathematician

All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians” – Monk

MonkThe history of mathematics is full of white men.

In my ongoing exploration of an underlying mathematics of the body, mathematics without numbers, and mathematics of nature, I have come to believe that there is an alternate story of math. This story cannot be told with one-dimensional strings of numbers or words. It is not a text.

einsteinyoungIt is a Mathematics expressed in picture, sound, and movement. People with dyslexia understand this kind of mathematics, and routinely engage it . While they struggle in school to get through Algebra, some of them manage to grow up to become brilliant scientists (like Einstein). It is wonderful that there are people who know how to keep school from interfering with their education.

There are several notable black mathematicians listed in Wikipedia. My favorite black mathematician is Thelonius Monk, but he is not in this list.

When my friend Gary Moran, an artist and jazz musician, introduced me to Monk, my reaction was typical: “he’s playing all the wrong notes!” But I soon started to hear something logical inside of the illogical. I’ve been studying – and playing – the music of Thelonius Monk now for over 25 years. He transformed the piano keyboard into a palette of symmetries and abstractions of traditional harmony and rhythm. And most of all: syncopation. I am reminded of the empty spaces of a Cantor Dust or the semi-periodic stuttering of prime numbers. In Monk, silence is used as a tool. Figure and ground are often swapped in the middle of a passage…and the mind is jolted (into discomfort…or joy, depending on your taste for syncopation).


Take another important jazz figure: John Coltrane. He created one of the most celebrated mathematical gems of all time. Giant Steps, a sonic fractal that strides through the octave (in giant steps) … in two time-periods.

Let’s overcome, at least for a moment, our prejudices and preconceptions of what kinds of people can make an impact on the world of mathematical ideas. I’m not saying we should try to understand certain creative people in terms of math as it is usually understood, but rather to expand our idea of math to incude a larger sphere of creativity.

Math is all about abstraction. But abstraction – by definition – has a concrete origin. Body, sound, and movement is where it all starts.