The most important jazz musicians are the ones who are successful in creating their own original world of music with its own rules, logic, and surprises. Thelonious Monk, who was criticized by observers who failed to listen to his music on its own terms, suffered through a decade of neglect before he was suddenly acclaimed as a genius; his music had not changed one bit in the interim. In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of Monk's music was that it was fully formed by 1947 and he saw no need to alter his playing or compositional style in the slightest during the next 25 years.
Thelonious Monk grew up in New York, started playing piano when he was around five, and had his first job touring as an accompanist to an evangelist. He was inspired by the Harlem stride pianists (James P. Johnson was a neighbor) and vestiges of that idiom can be heard in his later unaccompanied solos. However, when he was playing in the house band of Minton's Playhouse during 1940-1943, Monk was searching for his own individual style. Private recordings from the period find him sometimes resembling Teddy Wilson but starting to use more advanced rhythms and harmonies. He worked with Lucky Millinder a bit in 1942 and was with the Cootie Williams Orchestra briefly in 1944 (Williams recorded Monk's "Epistrophy" in 1942 and in 1944 was the first to record "‘Round Midnight"), but it was when he became Coleman Hawkins' regular pianist that Monk was initially noticed. He cut a few titles with Hawkins (his recording debut) and, although some of Hawkins' fans complained about the eccentric pianist, the veteran tenor could sense the pianist's greatness.
The 1945-1954 period was very difficult for Thelonious Monk. Because he left a lot of space in his rhythmic solos and had an unusual technique, many people thought that he was an inferior pianist. His compositions were so advanced that the lazier bebop players (although not Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) assumed that he was crazy. And Thelonious Monk's name, appearance (he liked funny hats), and personality (an occasionally uncommunicative introvert) helped to brand him as some kind of nut. Fortunately, Alfred Lion of Blue Note believed in him and recorded Monk extensively during 1947-1948 and 1951-1952. He also recorded for Prestige during 1952-1954, had a solo set for Vogue in 1954 during a visit to Paris, and appeared on a Verve date with Bird and Diz. But work was very sporadic during this era and Monk had to struggle to make ends meet.
His fortunes slowly began to improve. In 1955, he signed with Riverside and producer Orrin Keepnews persuaded him to record an album of Duke Ellington tunes and one of standards so his music would appear to be more accessible to the average jazz fan. In 1956 came the classic Brilliant Corners album, but it was the following year when the situation permanently changed. Monk was booked into the Five Spot for a long engagement and he used a quartet that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Finally, the critics and then the jazz public recognized Thelonious Monk's greatness during this important gig. The fact that he was unique was a disadvantage a few years earlier when all modern jazz pianists were expected to sound like Bud Powell (who was ironically a close friend), but by 1957 the jazz public was looking for a new approach. Suddenly, Monk was a celebrity and his status would not change for the remainder of his career. In 1958, his quartet featured the tenor of Johnny Griffin (who was even more compatible than Coltrane), in 1959 he appeared with an orchestra at Town Hall (with arrangements by Hall Overton), in 1962 he signed with Columbia and two years later was on the cover of Time. A second orchestra concert in 1963 was even better than the first and Monk toured constantly throughout the 1960s with his quartet which featured the reliable tenor of Charlie Rouse. He played with the Giants of Jazz during 1971-1972, but then in 1973 suddenly retired. Monk was suffering from mental illness and, other than a few special appearances during the mid-'70s, he lived the rest of his life in seclusion. After his death it seemed as if everyone was doing Thelonious Monk tributes. There were so many versions of "‘Round Midnight" that it was practically a pop hit! But despite the posthumous acclaim and attempts by pianists ranging from Marcus Roberts to Tommy Flanagan to recreate his style, there was no replacement for the original.
Some of Thelonious Monk's songs became standards early on, most notably "‘Round Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "52nd Street Theme," and "Blue Monk." Many of his other compositions have by now been figured out by other jazz musicians and are occasionally performed including "Ruby My Dear," "Well You Needn't," "Off Minor," "In Walked Bud," "Misterioso," "Epistrophy," "I Mean You," "Four in One," "Criss Cross," "Ask Me Now," "Little Rootie Tootie," "Monk's Dream," "Bemsha Swing," "Think of One," "Friday the 13th," "Hackensack," "Nutty," "Brilliant Corners," "Crepuscule With Nellie" (written for his strong and supportive wife), "Evidence," and "Rhythm-a-Ning," Virtually all of Monk's recordings (for Blue Note, Prestige, Vogue, Riverside, Columbia, and Black Lion) have been reissued and among his sidemen through the years were Idrees Sulieman, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Lou Donaldson, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach, Julius Watkins, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, Shadow Wilson, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Thad Jones, and Charlie Rouse. His son Thelonious Monk, Jr. (T.S. Monk) has helped keep the hard bop tradition alive with his quintet and has headed the Thelonious Monk Institute, whose yearly competitions succeed in publicizing talented young players. ~ Scott Yanow
In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year old high school student named Danny Scher had a dream to invite legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and his all-star quartet to perform a concert at his local high school in Palo Alto, CA. In a series of twists and turns, against a backdrop of racial tension and political volatility, that concert was recorded by the school's janitor. Palo Alto is now available physically on Impulse! Records and digitally on Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment.
My guess is that, by now, most readers already know the back-story for the recently-released Impulse! Records album Palo Alto, presenting a "live" recording of Thelonious Monk performing at Palo Alto High School on October 27, 1968 and leading a quartet whose other members were Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. The concert was arranged by a sixteen-year-old student at the school, Danny Scher; and this was not the first time he had produced a jazz concert there. That first occasion took place about a year earlier with an appearance by pianist Vince Guaraldi and the scat-singing trio known as (Dave) Lambert, (Jon) Hendricks, and (Annie) Ross.
As to the Palo Alto album, it has its own back-story. It only exists because a janitor at Paly decided to make a recording. Since that recording was not mentioned in Kelley's book, it is likely that it only came to light after the book appeared in October of 1999. The program was relatively short, organized around four Monk compositions. Two of them were given roughly quarter-hour treatments with extended improvisations across the entire quartet: "Well, You Needn't" and "Blue Monk." Shorter treatments were given to "Ruby, My Dear" and "Epistrophy," along with a take on Jimmy McHugh's "Don't Blame Me." At the end of the show, Monk took a solo encore with a brief account of Irving Berlin's "I Love You (Sweetheart Of All My Dreams)," which he had recorded in 1964 for Columbia Records.
Where repertoire is concerned, the Monk selections are all familiar. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from listening to the spontaneous inventiveness that emerges during the longer tracks. Gales' bass work in "Well, You Needn't" is particularly worthy of focused attention. Still, the real virtue of this gig is the history behind it, with the "punch line" of the Nairobi ballot initiative being defeated by a margin of more than two to one!
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Thelonious Monk once said: "Weird means something you never heard before. It's weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird." By the time Monk and his quartet strode into the auditorium at Palo Alto High School on October 27, 1968, people hadn't just gotten around to his oblong, minimalist take on jazz-they'd left it behind. After decades of toiling in New York's clubs to little outside recognition, Monk had briefly tasted superstardom, culminating in a 1964 Time magazine cover. Less than half a decade later, he'd slipped to No. 6 on DownBeat's International Critics Poll ranking jazz's best pianists, and writers routinely dismissed his playing as stale and uninspired. Still, he was Thelonious Sphere Monk: If he was no longer weird, and no longer a superstar, he was still a legend. A legend who couldn't afford to miss a $500 payday at a high school.
The live album Palo Alto is a grainy snapshot of Monk and his classic quartet taking a break from their two-week stand at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop to cut loose and get paid. But just as Monk's music was characterized by the power of its empty spaces-he's the person who said, "It's not the notes you play, it's those you leave out," a chestnut as well-worn as any of his songs-Palo Alto's thrills are made poignant by what was happening in his life unbeknownst to the audience, and what was happening in their life unbeknownst to Monk. This is exuberant, abundant music, made by and performed for people whose lives often felt anything but.
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The unearthed recording of Thelonious Monk's classic quartet oozes with bootleg charm
Located in present-day Silicon Valley, the Bay Area city of Palo Alto was a most unlikely place to catch a Sunday-matinee performance by Thelonious Monk back in 1968. By that time, Monk's jazz-giant stature had been firmly established, so it was a major coup that a plucky teenager named Danny Scher was able to snag Monk's quartet for an appearance at his local high school. Palo Alto is the document of that performance, which is finally seeing the light of day after Scher, who'd forgotten that the school custodian recorded the show, found the tape in his attic some 15 years ago. At that point, he contacted Monk's son, drummer T.S. Monk, who was surprised to discover that his father had even played a high school at any point in his much-heralded career.
The story behind Palo Alto, which could easily fill this review, oozes with charm and social context, both beautifully captured in liner notes that are worth the price of admission alone, even if you've watched the promotional mini-documentary released by the label. In that same promo clip, T.S. Monk surmises that his father's quartet was so well-oiled by 1968 that "they could [have] set up in a phone booth and sound like the records." Well, Palo Alto doesn't quite sound like it was recorded in a phone booth-it would be worth hearing even if it had been-but listeners should know ahead of time that the fidelity level here falls into bootleg range.
Which is not to say that you can't hear every instrument clearly. On the contrary-many, many acoustic nuances shine through: the greasy resonance as bassist Larry Gales scrapes his strings with a bow during his solo on a 13-minute version of "Well, You Needn't" (with Monk himself humming along), the variety of timbres and colors as drummer Ben Riley's toms pop and cymbals hiss, etc. Riley's drums in particular swell to loud enough volume that they stress the microphones, which creates the illusion that the listener is seated near the drumset and, thus, up close and personal with the musicians onstage.
That said, the recording has a dry, boxed-in character that, for better or worse, defines the listening experience. In strictly psychoacoustic terms, the band feels disembodied from the audience, from the room, and from itself. For one, the quartet itself is literally split up, with Riley and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse hard-panned to one side of the stereo field and Monk panned to the other along with Gales. Meanwhile, the audience's loud but muffled applause never integrates with the music, much in the same way we'd compare to a modern-era soundboard recording. So it's difficult to get any sense of room ambience, and, as a result, it's also difficult to connect with the band's energy.
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This 1969 concert by the Thelonious Monk Quartet was produced by a high school student and recorded by his school's janitor. Its publicity posters were printed up by the Palo Alto High School Graphic Arts Department. The janitor, we are told, received permission (but from whom?) to tape the concert as a reward for his having tuned the piano. Before the concert, only a few tickets were sold, but then a crowd gathered outside the school. People wanted to see Monk and the two opening acts, but didn't necessarily believe that the great pianist/composer would show up. After all he was appearing that night in a club in San Francisco.
Remarkably he did appear, and in a good mood, with his oft-recorded quartet of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley. Equally remarkably the recorded sound, in stereo, is excellent. Its main flaw is the close recording of the drum set, but even that is interesting. That janitor, whose very existence I somehow doubt, had skills. In Palo Alto, Monk played his standard set: four of his most famous originals, the ballad "Don't Blame Me" and, as an encore, a mini-version on solo piano of "I Love You Sweetheart of My Dreams," an obscure song that was introduced into the repertoire by Rudy Vallee and promptly forgotten by everyone but Monk, who used it repeatedly as a short finishing touch to his concerts. (There are a pair of mini versions on his Paris 1969 concert recordings.) At the end, Monk tells the crowd he'd like to play more for them but: "We have to hurry back and get to work, you dig?"
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In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year old high school student named Danny Scher had a dream to invite legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and his all-star quartet to perform a concert at his local high school in Palo Alto, CA. In a series of twists and turns, against a backdrop of racial tension and political volatility, that concert was recorded by the school's janitor and finally released in 2020.
Verve Presents: Monk Goes To School tells this story in innovative detail, interweaving the voices of Danny Scher, Thelonius Monk's son T.S. Monk, monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley and engineer/mixer Grandmixer DXT with narrator Anthony Valadez from KCRW.
The podcast is unique in that there is no hosted interview segment – it takes the listener on an immersive journey featuring the voices of the cast, sound design and music clips from the record throughout.
Verve/Impulse! Records and podcast creative studio PopCult are pleased to announce Verve Presents: Monk Goes To School, an innovative podcast that tells the story of Thelonious Monk's storied visit, concert, and subsequent recording at Palo Alto High School in 1968. The Podcast is available on all major platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, and more. Listen to the podcast HERE.
The album Palo Alto was released on September 18
PopCult Founder/Creative Director Dennis Scheyer says, "Once we heard the story of how the record came to be we felt that it deserved more than the usual ‘interview-based' portrayal. It's the kind of show we created our company to produce, and Verve fully supported us."
Recorded entirely "at home" with high-quality microphones across the United States, this podcast deftly weaves through multiple voices, telling this story of Thelonious Monk, the unexpected concert, and of course, uses the music to illustrate this important part of musical history.
EVP of Verve/Impulse! Jamie Krents says, "We're thrilled to collaborate with PopCult on Monk Goes to School. This podcast brilliantly captures the real story of the Palo Alto recording, and puts it in historical context with brilliant narration from all the key players. Impulse! and Verve Records have such a rich history of music that we're very excited to continue to illustrate in partnership with PopCult."
PopCult Partner, Strategy and Marketing Lars Murray says, "We were excited to help Verve establish a leadership position among labels by creating a high-quality narrative podcast that integrates their music seamlessly and tells a great story about a landmark release. Verve demonstrated that a label's access to licensed music is a huge advantage in podcasting."
Palo Alto – Thelonious Monk
Ruby, My Dear
Well, You Needn't
Don't Blame Me
I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams
‘In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year-old Jewish kid named Danny Scher had a dream. He wanted to bring the renowned Thelonious Monk and his quartet to play a benefit concert at his high school in Palo Alto, California."
So begins a liner note by Robin D.G. Kelley, Monk's definitive biographer, for "Palo Alto," a previously unreleased recording of that concert, out now. (The music is available on CD and vinyl through the Impulse! label, and digitally through Legacy Recordings.)
Since Monk's death in 1982, the influence of his compact yet essential body of compositions has grown with each passing decade; once considered radical, they are now elemental to modern jazz. Even so, Monk's piano playing-his jarring rhythmic displacements, clotted chords, flat-fingered runs and spiky dissonances on "Well, You Needn't" here, for instance-still sounds distinct. "Palo Alto" enlightens as it delights, opening a window into how Monk challenged his bands and himself, endlessly refreshing his unusual yet accessible compositions. Plus, it comes with a good story.
Mr. Scher, who would go on to a career as a promoter with rock impresario Bill Graham, was, in 1968, the red-headed kid who spun jazz records during lunchtime at "Paly," as his school was known. Having already presented pianist Vince Guaraldi, vocalist Jon Hendricks and vibraphonist Cal Tjader in fundraisers for the campus International Club, he hired Monk's quartet for $500. His motivation was pure: Along with Duke Ellington, who he'd later bring to the school, Monk was his idol. He sold concert-program ads along his paper route in predominantly white, upscale Palo Alto. He put up posters in mostly Black, less affluent East Palo Alto, where a campaign was afoot to rename the municipality Nairobi, after the capital of Kenya. He was no doubt aware of a larger context for such cross-promotion: the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the turmoil surrounding race.
What Mr. Scher likely didn't know is that Monk, who four years earlier had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was deeply in debt (the pianist probably welcomed a chance to earn extra money in the middle of his two-week engagement at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop). Critics had begun turning on the pianist, acknowledging his importance yet calling his quartet "predictable" because he mostly stuck to his existing compositions while other marquee jazz stars, such as Miles Davis, restlessly transformed their music.
After the concert, Mr. Scher placed his reel-to-reel recording in a box, where it remained for decades. If not for a school janitor who agreed to tune the piano if he could record the show, this release wouldn't exist. It's not a perfect document-Monk's piano bench creaks through some passages-but the music sounds clear and affecting nonetheless.
Monk's quartet here-with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, his sideman for a decade by then, along with bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, who joined Monk in 1964-was his most cohesive band, then at the height of its powers. Perhaps owing to the informal nature of the gig, the group seems particularly uninhibited. The music sounds ebullient.
Monk almost never began a set with a ballad, but he opens here with one of his own: "Ruby, My Dear," played at a medium tempo and punctuated by a succinct and deeply satisfying piano solo. Compared to "Live at the It Club"-a landmark album documenting this group four years earlier on a Los Angeles bandstand-the extended versions here of Monk's "Well, You Needn't" and "Blue Monk" sound looser, more creative. On "Well, You Needn't," Monk builds propulsion and drama with each chord, and Gales plays a long and playful bowed section. On "Blue Monk," the band seems less beholden to blues syntax than to organic call-and-response phrasing. "Epistrophy," which Monk co-wrote with drummer Kenny Clarke, exemplifies both the percussive nature of his pianism and his band's masterly sense of time.
The most gripping moments of this recording find Monk alone at the piano, playing songs he didn't write. On the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields classic "Don't Blame Me," he grounds his left hand in stride-piano's bounce, rains down elegant arpeggios with his right and, in between, wrings maximum emotion from single notes. His closer, a solo rendition of "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams," a 1928 song made famous by Rudy Vallee, lasts just one deeply affecting minute. As its final crashing chord evaporates into overtones the auditorium erupts in applause, to which Monk says, "We have to hurry back and get to work, you dig?"
And so he did. East Palo Alto didn't change its name. The identity of that Palo Alto janitor remains a mystery. Yet thanks to him and to this performance before an unlikely interracial audience in a high school auditorium, we have 47 minutes of rare pleasure, and a corrective to Monk's long-ago detractors. He never grew predictable. He just dug deeper into these tunes to innovate.
In recent years record labels have bombarded jazz fans with a seemingly endless supply of "lost masterpieces" and newly discovered concert recordings. While some of these are superfluous (do we really need more live Keith Jarrett or Miles Davis albums?), others catch moments of such inspired creation that shelving them would do a disservice to the music. Bebop icon Thelonious Monk's Palo Alto falls into the latter category. Recorded live in concert in October, 1968 at Palo Alto High School in California, it's the unlikely result of the hustle of an enterprising 16-year-old jazz evangelist named Danny Scher, a quick thinking school janitor, and fortuitous timing-all laid against the backdrop of 1968 America.
Palo Alto lives up to the hype it will no doubt generate. It features Monk's touring quartet, which includes his longtime collaborator tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley. Although the concert was of Scher's making, the janitor is the reason we are able to hear it, as he offered to have the piano tuned in exchange for permission to record the concert. Following the show Scher received the tapes which found their way into his attic, where they sat for decades.
Upon hitting the stage, Monk plinked down a few chords, Rouse and Gales played a few notes, and Riley gave his drum kit a quick once over-just a brief check to see how the room felt. It must have felt good, because instead of playing "Ruby, My Dear" at its usual slow ballad pace, the band took it at a sprightly medium swing tempo. Their immediate energy was an encouraging sign that the night would be special. During his solo Rouse mixes bebop with ballad phrasing, gliding with ease over Monk's slanting accompaniment lines and Riley's tidy brushwork. Where Monk might often land sharp jabs on the keys, here he's just as light and nimble as Rouse.
Musically, the concert was a triumph. Even if Monk and the band saw it as just a paycheck, they refused to phone it in and turned in a performance that 52 years later will certainly end up topping many critics' best of 2020 lists. From a social aspect, Scher feels that for one night, Monk's performance helped call a "truce" between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. For him and members of the community, it was a temporary balm for the tensions between the two cities. Naturally one concert could not solve decades of inequity, and even Scher's claim of a truce may be naïve. Nonetheless, a night with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction backstory could produce music that was nothing less than special.
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In 1968, a 16-year-old jazz fan at Palo Alto High School in California decides to hold a concert in the school's auditorium to raise funds for its International Club-and convinces Thelonious Monk's manager that his client should be the headliner. (Not surprisingly, the student, Danny Scher, would soon become a major force in the live-music production world.) As concert day approaches, one of the school's janitors, an audio enthusiast, offers to tune the piano in exchange for recording the show, a deal that's quickly agreed to. On the afternoon of October 27, the Thelonious Monk Quartet gives its only known high-school performance. Afterward, the janitor (his name apparently lost to history, though researchers are no doubt still working on that) hands the young promoter a tape. It goes in a box, where it sits for the next 50 years. When its owner rediscovers it, he contacts Monk's son T.S., who-first tickled by the story, then impressed by the recording's quality-sanctions its release.
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This never-before-heard 1968 performance at a high school in Palo Alto is real surprise from a period where Monk was not as prolific as before. While with Columbia Records in the Sixties, Monk had his biggest commercial success ("Monk's Dream" in 1963) and one of his late-period classics ("Underground" in 1968). Monk received a letter from student Danny Scher to play at his school. This concert features the "Underground" band with drummer Ben Riley, bassist Larry Gales and Monk's greatest foil saxophonist, Charlie Rouse. The band rolls through six crowd-pleasers where you can hear the quartet win over the students who attended and just how well Monk and his band drew their energy from them.
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52 Years Ago, an ambitious student named Danny Scher booked the jazz great at Palo Alto High School in Northern California. A recording of the event gathered dust for five decades.
In the late 1960s, a precocious student named Danny Scher was the elected social commissioner at Palo Alto High School in Northern California. His duties included organizing dances and assemblies, but Mr. Scher, who grew up playing in jazz bands, wanted jazz musicians to perform at the school, too. He convinced the vibraphonist Cal Tjader, the singer Jon Hendricks and the pianist Vince Guaraldi (of "Peanuts" fame) to play separate gigs in the school's spacious auditorium. Then he turned his attention to his idol, Thelonious Monk.
Monk, a pianist, was more than a decade past his most famous recordings and near the end of an unfruitful run at Columbia Records when his manager got the request from Mr. Scher. The jazz titan agreed to perform at the school on Sunday, Oct. 27, 1968. He was already scheduled to be in the area for a three-week stint at the Jazz Workshop, a club in San Francisco, so Mr. Scher had his older brother Les drive there and pick up the pianist and his band. There were no plans to preserve the one-off concert, but a school janitor asked Mr. Scher whether he could record the show if he tuned the piano.
Now, 52 years later, Impulse! Records and Legacy Recordings are releasing it as an album called "Palo Alto" that captures the 47-minute concert in full. The "Palo Alto" recording had collected dust in the attic of Mr. Scher's family home until he contacted Monk's son - the jazz drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk - about releasing it. Digitally restored and widely available for the first time on Friday, "Palo Alto" captures a band hitting a high note, even as Monk battled personal and professional turmoil.
Monk and his touring band - the drummer Ben Riley, the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and the bassist Larry Gales - performed in Palo Alto as the city, like much of the United States, was gripped by tension. America was rocked by the war in Vietnam and the shooting deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Locally, there was friction between residents of the mostly white Palo Alto and the mostly Black East Palo Alto, an unincorporated area with high unemployment rates. The residents of East Palo Alto didn't have voting power to govern their own town, and by 1968, local leaders established schools and other institutions to educate residents about Black culture.
The pressure came to a head in 1968, when a contingent of younger East Palo Alto residents started a campaign to rename the city "Nairobi," after the capital of Kenya. The Monk gig happened a week before the name change was up for a vote before the East Palo Alto Municipal Council. (It was defeated by a margin of two to one.)
In a Zoom interview, Mr. Scher said he was warned by the police department in East Palo Alto to not post fliers advertising the show there. "Wherever I saw a poster that said, ‘Vote yes on Nairobi,' I'd put up an ad, ‘Come and see Thelonious Monk at Palo Alto High School,'" he said. "The police would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, kid. Hey, white boy, this is not really a cool place for you to be, given what's going on. You're going to get in trouble here. This isn't cool.'"
But Mr. Scher had a show to promote: "I've got to sell tickets, and if you think I'm in trouble by being here, I'll be in even more trouble if the show doesn't do well."
Tickets were priced at $2 and weren't selling well, at least not initially. That's when Mr. Scher added two noted local bands as openers: the seven-piece Jym Marks Afro Ensemble and Smoke, an avant-garde free jazz band. Both groups had been popular in the Black community, and their presence might encourage the residents of East Palo Alto to consider coming to the show, Mr. Scher thought.
There was still skepticism, though. Aside from the thick racial friction, many people didn't think an artist as prominent as Monk would actually show up to play at a high school. Just two days before the gig, Mr. Scher called Monk at the Jazz Workshop to make sure it was still on. It's a good thing he did.
"I said, ‘We're really looking forward to seeing you at my school,'" Mr. Scher recalled. "He said, ‘What are you talking about?'" The student explained there was a contract, and tickets had been sold. Monk asked how he'd get to Palo Alto. "I said, ‘Well, my brother's old enough to drive to the city so he can come get you,'" Mr. Scher said. "And Monk said, ‘OK.' So I didn't think anything of it."
The show didn't sell out until Les drove through the parking lot, which was full of East Palo Alto residents, with Monk and his band. "I remember the bass sticking out of the window," Mr. Scher said.
On the surface, it would seem there's nothing exceptional about "Palo Alto," on which Monk plays his older music, including stately renditions of "Ruby, My Dear," "Well, You Needn't" and "Don't Blame Me," along with a piano cover of Rudy Vallee's "I Love You Sweetheart of All of My Dreams." But according to Robin D.G. Kelley, who wrote the definitive 2009 biography "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original," the live recording catches the Monk quartet at a final creative high.
The "Palo Alto" recording had collected dust in the attic of Danny Scher's family home until he contacted Monk's son about releasing it.
The "Palo Alto" recording had collected dust in the attic of Danny Scher's family home until he contacted Monk's son about releasing it.Credit...Larry Fink
"It was a great band, and it was just about to break up, so this is one of the last recordings of this particular configuration," Mr. Kelley said in a Zoom interview. "You get a sense that Ben Riley and Larry Gales, they're playing as if it's their last concert. They know they're about to cut out, so they're going to come in there and just blow."
Monk spent much of 1968 struggling with health challenges that slowed his output and ultimately led to his isolation. Earlier that year, he'd suffered a seizure and ended up in a coma, which caused him to miss scheduled recording sessions. Indebted to his label, he hit the road early to handle financial obligations that arose during his illness.
The Palo Alto performance energized the pianist, then 51. "He was feeling real, real good, and you could hear it in his playing," T.S. Monk said in a Zoom interview. "For us jazz musicians, if you're working steady, that's when your thing really comes together," he said. "So he had been working steady with this group, and they were just on it."
For a few hours, the Palo Alto show united Black and white residents, who briefly set their differences aside to enjoy the music. "It was white, Black, young, old, high school, grandparents and parents at the end," Mr. Scher said. "To me, this was like pressing pause. It was like a time out. ‘Let's just all get along. Let's just hear some great music for a day.'"
The following March, Mr. Scher booked the pianist and jazz great Duke Ellington to perform with the California Youth Symphony at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Mr. Scher says he has it on tape, and that it's "never been released, or even really listened to, to speak of." Mr. Scher went on to become a top concert promoter after he graduated from Stanford University, spending two decades working for the well-known rock promoter Bill Graham - where he developed the Shoreline Amphitheater into a powerhouse venue - before he started his own promotion business and later moved on into real estate.
Following the Palo Alto gig, Monk released his last few studio albums on Black Lion Records, a British label, before fading into obscurity. He died from a stroke in New Jersey in 1982.
Jazz never let up its hold on Mr. Scher, whose ringtone is Mr. Ellington's "Take the ‘A' Train." The processional song at his wedding was "Sophisticated Lady," a jazz standard that Mr. Monk also performed in 1955. "In everyone's life, something comes along that speaks to them," Mr. Scher said. "And for some reason, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington just spoke to me. And even to this day, they speak to me."
Sometimes these previously unreleased, newly discovered albums turn out to be something of a disappointment; lots of hype over a recording session or concert that was probably left in the vault for good reason. That's not the case here. Palo Alto, a live recording from October 1968, captures Thelonious Monk's quarter with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse on a really good night. or in this case, a really good afternoon.
The concert was planned by a sixteen year-old schoolboy named Danny Scher, who arranged to invite Monk to play at his high school with the noble aim of promoting racial equality and raising money for his school. The concert very nearly failed to take place. There were concerns that Monk would never show, and tickets sales were slow at first. There was also a last-minute scramble to arrange transportation for the band, who had another gig to go to that evening.
No matter. Monk appeared, and so did the crowds. At 47 minutes, it's a short set, but the band are on fire, and there's a warmth and vibrancy to the playing throughout. The album opens with a delightful version of Monk's romantic Ruby My Dear, with Rouse on fine form, delivering a lyrical solo. There's a rousing version of Well You Needn't, which is quite superb. Note the fine support from Monk as Rouse solos, before the pianist takes over. There's a lengthy bowed bass solo by Larry Gales, who sings along as he solos, Jarrett-style, before drummer Ben Riley comes in with a lively solo of his own. Don't Blame Me by Jimmy McHugh features Monk alone, and even the out-of-tune piano cannot detract from the enjoyment.
After a delay of a few weeks, the album will be released on Impulse! on September 18th.
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Thelonious Monk might not be as popular as some other Jazz musicians, but he was a jazz genius who was considered one of the most creative originators of his time. Here is a look into his life and death. Many people go down in history for the impact they have made on the world. While some are known for their revolutionary ideas, some are considered originators. One such originator was the talented pianist and jazz musician Thelonious Monk who was born in 1917 and died in 1982. Lovers of the genre would forever cherish his life and contribution to Jazz music.
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In the fall of 1968, a sixteen-year old high school student named Danny Scher had a dream to invite legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and his all-star quartet to perform a concert at his local high school in Palo Alto, CA. In a series of twists and turns, against a backdrop of racial tension and political volatility, that concert happened and was recorded by the school's janitor. Palo Alto is set for release on July 31, 2020 on legendary jazz label Impulse! Records – marking Thelonious Monk's posthumous debut on John Coltrane's label home.
"That performance is the one of the best live recordings I've ever heard by Thelonious," says T.S. Monk, son of the pianist/composer maestro, drummer and founder of the Thelonious Monk Institute. "I wasn't even aware of my dad playing a high school gig, but he and the band were on it. When I first heard the tape, from the first measure, I knew my father was feeling really good."
The concert was quite impressively recorded by Palo Alto High School's janitor, and the tape sat in the attic of Scher's family home for years. When he contacted T.S. Monk to release it, they chose legendary label Impulse! Records, the label home of John Coltrane, known as "the house that Trane built." The relationship between Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane is well documented and historic, so it is particularly appropriate that almost forty years after his death, Monk finally makes his Impulse! debut with Palo Alto.
Palo Alto is the first of multiple planned joint releases over the next five years from Impulse! Records in conjunction with the Monk estate's Rhythm-A-Ning Entertainment led by T.S. Monk.
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