Home » Stories » Laid against the backdrop of 1968 America, a 16-year-old jazz evangelist and a quick thinking high school janitor lead to Thelonious Monk's 'Live From Palo Alto' / Passion of the Weiss

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Laid against the backdrop of 1968 America, a 16-year-old jazz evangelist and a quick thinking high school janitor lead to Thelonious Monk's 'Live From Palo Alto' / Passion of the Weiss

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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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