EDITORIAL

Always more Monk!

By Sierre Monk

Always more Monk!

 

By DJ Pari

 

In a recent group chat among jazz vinyl collectors on Instagram (yes, that's where a lot of us hang out), we were discussing the release of Thelonious Monk's previously unheard Palo Alto album when someone casually asked, "do we really need more Monk?" 

What followed was a moment of awkward silence. Too outrageous was this question for anyone to even consider dignifying it with a response. Obviously only a heretic — I'm going to spare them the humiliation and won't name them here — would dare to speak such unspeakable words. Even if we treated this question as purely rhetorical, it allows for just one foregone conclusion: Yes, absolutely, we will always need more Monk. And Palo Alto, the latest nugget in the pianist's extensive discography (released by Impulse Records a few weeks ago), isn't just another collection of long-lost throwaway material that miraculously reemerged from someone's attic. With this recording, the Monk estate struck gold. 

It's not just that the tape of this 47-minute show from Oct. 27, 1968, had been sitting on a shelf for decades. Much has already been written about the bizarre circumstances of how this event came about: 16-year-old white Jewish schoolboy and jazz fan Danny Scheer is audacious enough to call Monk's agent and book the jazz legend to perform at his Bay Area high school. He ventures deep into the then-segregated black neighborhoods of East Palo Alto to hand out flyers and hang posters promoting his event. Defying all skeptics and naysayers, Scheer really pulls it off, Monk and his group arrive in the afternoon in an old station wagon with Sheer's older brother behind the wheel. The rest is history.

Most surprisingly, even the playing-the-same-old-tunes-at-a-high-school-auditorium-towards-the-end-of-his-recording-career era Monk is brimming with passion. The group, also comprising tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, really cooks, adding new life to Monk classics like "Ruby my Dear," "Well, you needn't" and "Blue Monk." Monk only wrote 87 original compositions in his lifetime, he is not judged for the depth of his catalog, but for the treatment of his material, which he changed consistently with each recording, and Palo Alto is no exception. 

This most unusual performance may have remained but a footnote in the pianist's complex biography, had it not been for the school's janitor, who captured it on his mono reel-to-reel machine. After the tape, which Scheer safeguarded for 52 years, went through a sonic jiggle-bath, a remarkably clean recording emerged that eventually was pressed into vinyl for the first time. And before you ask, yes, it was done right. 

It is my guess that the suits at Impulse Records considered complaints from Coltrane fans about the dull presentation of the saxophonist's previously lost Blue World album last year, because they gave Palo Alto a treatment worthy of Monk's standing as one of the most important composers and performers in jazz. The vinyl release comes in a gorgeous gatefold cover and includes a booklet with liner notes by Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, plus, as a bonus, authentic reproductions of the concert's program and poster, making this set not just a must-have for any Monk fan, but a little treasure in every jazz collection. 

And in Monk's own words, you've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?    

 

Follow DJ Pari on Instagram - @djpari_

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Celebrating Monk in Unforeseen Times

By Sierre Monk

Celebrating Monk in Unforeseen Times

 

Fifty-two years ago, modern music giant Thelonious Monk performed a healing live concert in a high school auditorium. Its recent unearthing comes right on time.

 

Thelonious Monk, the iconic father of modern jazz, was known among those close to him as deeply philosophical; he likely coined as many sagacious terms as he wrote groundbreaking music compositions. Even time-tested postulations had a different impact and meaning when coming from Monk, who could sometimes be a man of few words, and captivated anyone within earshot when he did speak. So when Monk would say, “Timing is everything,” there was always a meaning beyond the immediately discernable.

 

While “timing” is certainly applied to the art of improvisation, Monk was a perspicacious observer of life and people. His example is rooted in his idea that daily life was full of lessons and revelations if you attune yourself to seeing it that way. When he says, “Timing is everything,” it’s so much more than a notion. This indication of fate couldn’t be truer when considering the recently unearthed and now, for the first time ever, globally released Palo Alto, a live recording of a concert performed 52 years ago, this month.

 

Released last month on the Impulse! label, Palo Alto documents a concert in Palo Alto, California, organized by a 15-year-old jazz enthusiast at a time when, to quote the great Ray Charles, “The world is in an uproar . . . the danger zone is everywhere.” It had been six months and 23 days since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and as James Baldwin put it, “The atmosphere was black with a tension indescribable — as though something, perhaps the heavens, perhaps the earth, might crack.” Time stood still as the world’s symbol of the potential of America at her moral best was snatched from those who held on to the hope that the “land of the free” could actually come to be.

 

Only two days after Dr. King was struck down on a hotel balcony in Memphis, 17-year-old Black Panther Party member Bobby Hutton met the same violent fate in Oakland, California, at the hands of the Oakland Police Department. Forty-one years before the New Year’s Day murder of Oscar Grant III, a devoted father and retail worker, murdered by BART police while unarmed and restrained, would rock Oakland once again, Hutton’s short life marked the turn of significant historical events for the civil rights-era freedom struggle in the United States. Actor and activist Marlon Brando, who eulogized Hutton, forewarned his countrymen that America was a “ticking time bomb.” Indeed it was, and still is.

 

Forty minutes south of Oakland, Danny Scher, a white boy not much younger than Bobby Hutton, was organizing a concert event at Palo Alto High School, where he’d just entered his junior year, in the very segregated city of Palo Alto. A devotee of jazz, who had already impressively booked artists like Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, and Jon Hendricks, Scher was determined to add his musical idol, Thelonious Monk, to his booking roster.

 

Monk was already in San Francisco for what would be an extended stay, including a three-week residency at The Jazz Workshop. The North Beach nightclub was known as a prime venue for recording live albums of jazz musicians, including Cannonball Adderley (1962), Barry Harris (1960), Ahmad Jamal (1964), Max Roach (1963), and Monk himself (1964). Unbeknownst to Scher at the time, he would soon be making recording history of his own (with the help of and thanks to a quick-thinking, black custodial worker at the high school whose brilliant idea to record the concert — and get the piano tuned in exchange for permission to do so — resulted in an essential missing piece of history now planted in its rightful space.)

In a promo for the Palo Alto release, Scher — who would go on to be a successful West Coast concert promoter and real estate agent — recounts getting in touch with Monk’s management and receiving a thumbs-up for the booking. As he promoted the event, he came up against every booking agent’s worst nightmare: slow and low ticket sales. Scher migrated his marketing efforts to East Palo Alto, which was economically disadvantaged, predominately black, and full of cultural pride. As suspicion of the validity of his event grew from the very community he desperately needed ticket sales from, he decided to make a call to ensure the deal was sealed, this time speaking to Monk himself.

 

Already booked in San Francisco for the night in question and having no transportation to commute to Palo Alto, and unaware of the entire situation, Monk expressed doubt about the event coming to fruition. Scher, determined as ever, offered solutions to both dilemmas (his school concert was at 2pm, and his older brother had a license to drive the family van), and Monk graciously obliged, moved by the young teen’s ambition and passion.

 

With Scher’s brother at the wheel, Monk and band members saxophonist Charlie Rouse, drummer Ben Riley, and bassist Larry Gales squeezed themselves into the van. As they pulled into the school’s parking lot on October 27, 1968, the neck of Gales’s bass sticking out of the van window, ticket sales subsequently rolled in. What the filled-to-capacity audience heard was an iteration of Monk’s touring quartet at the height of their powers on a Sunday afternoon in California’s Bay Area, a region throbbing with tension, grief, anger, and pain. A region whose stark decades-long division of East and West was a reminder of American society’s constructed and inculcated caste system.

 

And now, 52 years later, we find ourselves at another American impasse, where a culmination of violence has reenergized the country to take to the streets, as we battle two pandemics: both violent, both deadly, and both viral, with a target on the backs of Black people across the land. Thelonious Monk performing in Palo Alto with a country under familiar duress was a salve to the raw wounds that racial violence left in its wake.

 

The last five months have forced America to yet again grapple with herself. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have become global symbols of America’s failures and illuminated the center of her centuries-old plague of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy. In consequence, numerous artists have answered the call of the times. The Colbert Show musical director, Jon Batiste, has led numerous marches in New York City in protest of police brutality and to galvanize potential voters in our upcoming presidential election. Producer, emcee, and DJ D-Nice, whose Instagram-grown Club Quarantine has created an online musical movement lauded by the likes of Michelle Obama, bridges generations and culture at a time when the world needs a safe space to exhale and carry on. Palo Alto surfacing amidst America’s next wave of the civil and human rights movement is a divine reminder that this fight stands on the shoulders of many, including the artists whose contributions have kept us sustained through the necessary expression of righteous anger and relentless resistance.

 

Monk and his quartet played some of Monk’s most popular and memorable repertoire, like “Well, You Needn’t” and “Ruby, My Dear,” for a mixed audience. The set list also included “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” which he played as an encore of sorts as the desirous crowd was even more fired up after his signature benediction, “Epistrophy.” I would imagine seasoned listeners and fans being soothed by the familiar contents of Monk’s set, yet there is a fervency heard throughout that is particularly momentous, especially given that Monk had recently been seriously ill a few months before and was slowly but nonetheless steadily recovering at the time.

 

There’s so much heart heard here, and one can only imagine how much of Monk’s clear virtuosic fortitude was prompted by the moment. The result was an audience deeply fortified during a time of most certain uncertainty. Monk’s music an alleviator, a point of solace and maybe even hope. Just like it is right now for all of us who navigate crippling and unforeseen times.

 

“Timing is everything” and may the timing of this offering refuel us with the reminder that our ancestors — who were curators of calm within the storm then — are always with us, in the here and now.

 

 

Track listing:

Ruby My Dear

Well, You Needn’t

Don’t Blame Me

Blue Monk

Epistrophy

I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams

 

By Angélika Beener. 

 

Angélika Beener is an award-winning freelance journalist. A South Bronx native and Brooklyn resident, she has written for various outlets and organizations including NPR, TIDAL, Huffington Post, Jazz at Lincoln Center and DownBeat. Beener is also a DJ and was a consulting producer for the acclaimed 2019 documentary Digging for Weldon Irvine. Follow Angélika on Instagram - @jellyjellybobelly @kulturedchild. 

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Palo Alto Release

By Julion St Hill

Palo Alto Release

In the fall of '68, a 16-yr old Jewish kid named Danny Scher had a dream to bring jazz icon Thelonious Monk and his quartet to play a benefit concert at his high school in Palo Alto, California. With the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy Jr. in April and June of that year, 1968 was a time of great political and racial strife – echoing many of the same issues we are experiencing today. 


With racial strife both nationally and locally as the backdrop, Danny Scher succeeded in bringing one of the biggest Black acts in America to his predominantly white town - and temporarily united a divided city.


We're excited to announce that the previously-unissued Thelonious Monk performance from October 27, 1968 - at Palo Alto High School is officially available. It's a thrilling performance by Monk's classic quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales and Ben Riley, and has a fascinating backstory amidst the civil rights tensions of the late '60s.



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Making of Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits Playlist

By Julion St Hill

Making of Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits Playlist

 

by T. S. Monk 


When it comes to explaining my ‘Thelonious Monk Greatest Hits’ playlist, my job is inescapably threefold. I wear 3 hats. 

Number one, I am his son. Number two, I had the extraordinary privilege of performing with him. And number three, I am a fan - like millions of others. 

As his son, I tend to love everything he composed because I grew up listening to all the music, starting in my mom’s tummy. 


Instantly, I became familiar with the music, along with my sister, “Boo Boo” Barbara Monk. The entire Monk family, both nuclear and extended, became  indoctrinated with the music. As a drummer and fellow musician, performing with Monk and so many others, playing Monk’s music was and still is an absolute joy. Why? Because every tune is swinging. And all the tunes are intellectually challenging. They are instructive, both melodically and harmonically, and they are enlightening from a spiritual standpoint. 


Now from a fan’s perspective, so many of Thelonious Monk’s tunes have become what is called “standard repertoire”. Every composition is a masterpiece, and picking the one you like the most actually rotates and changes from day to day, and sometimes favorites shift moment to moment. I think this is a true conundrum for all of Monk’s fans.


Thelonious Monk is now the second most recorded composer in the history of jazz and his composition, “Round Midnight”, is the most recorded song in jazz history. He is second only to Duke Ellington, one of his mentors. The reason? Genius. Pure genius. “Monk’s Dream” is my personal favorite here. Especially his classic quartet recording on “It’s Monk’s Time” with Charlie Rouse, Frankie Dunlop, and Larry Gales. 


Thelonious Monk’s piano playing is still the most unique in all of jazz. Impossible to copy. Uncompromising, and incomparable. Thelonious Monk may be the most unique instrumentalist in the history of “western music” period. So give a listen, and enjoy The Greatest. 



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Jazz and the Love of Monk

By Sierre Monk

Jazz and the Love of Monk

 

Thelonious Monk was my first jazz love. In the past decade or so, I have found great joy in listening to a wide variety of jazz music, and I love the time I get to spend researching and exploring the records and the artists who recorded them, but it is all still thanks to the High Priest – Thelonious Monk.

As a high school student, I developed an interest in jazz with a few friends. Our ultimate goal was to have our own original punk rock band. All we knew of jazz was that it was complicated, so the idea was that if we could play jazz, we could play really cool punk music. But we ended up falling in love with jazz. Monk was the catalyst. We listened to Miles Davis’ “Four and More”. We took in early Dizzy Gillespie. A friend’s dad had a bunch of 70’s fusion records that we played repeatedly. But when we first heard Monk, we were hooked. It happened by accident, and it wasn’t even Monk playing…

In our junior year of high school, some of my friends and I decided to get together and try to jam like our heroes on the classic records of the fifties and sixties, and eventually found enough people to make a quintet of bari sax, trumpet, guitar (me), bass, and drums. We weren’t very well-versed in jazz tradition, so in deciding what to play, we all simply suggested tunes we had heard elsewhere, and sometimes we would randomly flip through a Real Book and try things that looked interesting. One of those chosen out of visual interest from the unique score was Thelonious Monk’s classic minor blues – “Blue Monk”. I was fascinated by the simple chromatic patterns. And when the melody broke away, it almost seemed like it was deliberately avoiding traditional chord tones. Yet, it was so infectiously hummable! It was constantly stuck in my head. How had this effect been achieved? How could this tune be ignoring everything I thought I knew about what made music ‘catchy’, and still be among the catchiest tunes I’d ever heard? What music theory had gone into this? Nothing I had learned in music theory books or classes up to that point could explain Monk’s music.

Over the years, I continued absorbing more and more jazz - free jazz, especially, and the music of the spiritual jazz and black power movements in the 1970’s (I know there are many opinions about the use of those terms. I use them as colloquial descriptors, and nothing more or less). I got heavy into the early music of Ornette Coleman, the late pseudo-religious work of John Coltrane, the high-art whimsy of Eric Dolphy, and the steam-bath aggressiveness of Albert Ayler. Pharoah Sanders’ long meditative tracks started to be a constant on my speakers. Don Cherry’s disjointed harmonic experiments, Hannibal Marvin Peterson’s Sunrise Orchestra, the infinite palette of four decades of Sun Ra, the brilliant artist-centered work spearheaded by Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell as the founders and main artists on the Strata-East – Archie Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil Taylor, Lloyd McNeil, Marion Brown … it was all-encompassing, and for whatever reason, a source of unbridled joy. It taught me to be calm in the face of frustration and to seek out the order in apparent chaos. 

Through these discoveries, Monk drifted from my periphery a bit. As I began to collect records, I also found great pleasure in reading about the musicians I was listening to. Several books on Charles Mingus, for example, made his music come to life for me like never before. Robin DG Kelley’s formidably-sized Monk biography was a project I took when I was supposed to be writing my master’s thesis in mathematics, but it soon became a fabulous escape. I finished the thesis, but the lasting experience of that part of my life was Kelley’s book. 

One of the most poignant parts of the book for me was Monk’s reaction to the “new thing”, specifically the earliest appearances on disc and in person in New York of Ornette Coleman. Paraphrasing, Monk essentially declared that while he liked the music of Ornette and his colleagues, he felt it wasn’t really so new, and that he had been doing similar things for almost 20 years. I didn’t agree with that at all at the time, but I had a few Monk records that I enjoyed, and I listened to a few of them (especially “Criss-Cross” and “The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall”) while reading the book. All of the magic of Monk’s music from my younger days came flooding back during those sessions, and Monk started to once again become a central focus of my collecting and listening. He was right, of course. “Blue Monk”, as well as so many of his best melodies, especially the lurching ballad “’Round Midnight”, are basically the be-bop versions of free jazz. Non-chord tones, used as a bridge to an unconventional melodic end, dominate Monk’s music, as do huge interval leaps, tone clustering, etc. All of these elements would be amplified in the free jazz movement, but with hindsight firmly in my corner, I agree with Monk. He was their originator in a small ensemble playing.

Some years after my initial foray into jazz as a collector and listener, I began to seriously consider taking up the double bass, as I’d always wanted. Being a guitarist for so long, I’d played in my high school and college jazz ensembles, but never really felt satisfied with the role of my instrument. After likely getting sick of hearing me talk about it so much, my wife located a cheap used double bass for me. I began taking lessons, and thanks to my prior musical training, was able to play basic walking patterns quickly. My instructor suggested that I try my hand at live performance and mentioned that some of his students needed a bassist for an ensemble. He put me in contact with them, and at our first meeting they asked what I might like to play. Of course, I suggested “Blue Monk”. 

 by Greg Trout

Greg is a jazz fan and mathematician from the US Mid-Atlantic. In addition to collecting jazz vinyl, he enjoys playing the double bass and spending quality time with his wife and pug dog. Find Greg on Instagram @jazzpeasant

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Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking

By Sierre Monk

Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking

Monk Mantras + Positive Thinking: Channel Thelonious Monk’s Creative Energy During Difficult Situations 

by Sierre Monk


When I set an intention during meditation, I use the affirmations we referenced in 5 Monk Moods You Need To Live By. Lately, ‘Continue Thankfully’ has resonated the strongest, because I find deep comfort in gratitude. As we settle into this new decade, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve found useful when experiencing difficult emotions. 


It is important to speak up and give voice to your feelings in a manner that serves you. 


Sometimes grief inspires flow-state creativity. Other times it doesn’t. 


Sadness is sobering because it reveals things about yourself and others. 


Compassion is a bonding experience that we all deserve. 


I am so thankful for my ancestors. I like to think that the wisdom of Thelonious Monk has been passed down to me - as I learn, I use this reminder to anchor and redirect my thinking.

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“Solo Monk”

By Julion St Hill

“Solo Monk”

 

~To Sierre – I am honored to be able to share some words about your very favorite Monk album, this timeless masterpiece, “Solo Monk”

The minute hand trudged along, straining with every hesitant tick forward in what seemed like hours to me while I sat outside the principal’s office. No, I hadn’t been involved in any mischief or gotten myself into trouble. Rather, I was nervously bolted to the chair, alto saxophone gripped in my clammy fourth-grader hands, waiting to be called into her office. Our elementary school’s saxophone teacher had a diabolical plan for us to serenade the entire school throughout the year with a couple of songs over the intercom system. As a relatively novice saxophone student who had only started taking lessons the previous year, it’s not difficult to imagine how nerve-racking such a situation might have been for me, though it was one that also helped me appreciate the solo efforts of artists in general and the great Thelonious Monk in particular. To begin with, the lingering and palpable silence felt in the trice before I began playing really stayed with me, together with a sense of being utterly exposed, which was at once quite stressful but at the same time very cathartic. And though it was a very early part of my experience playing music, it nevertheless presented a chance to grow and learn from such a challenge. As I sit here now, spinning “Solo Monk” and absorbing the master tinkering at the piano keys in his own unique and special way, I think back to that time and how I was on my own, playing solo.

“Solo Monk”, recorded between October 31, 1964 and March 2, 1965, was Thelonious Monk’s eighth album with Columbia Records. Even though he released several solo albums, each one meriting particular attention, “Solo Monk” arguably stands tall as his very best unaccompanied album. It opens with the distinctive ragtime flavor of “Dinah”, where you can clearly hear the stride comping style of playing that was characteristic of performers back in the 1920s. But instead of playing it ‘straight’, Monk peppers the piece with a special sense of humor in the way he draws out the melody in several places and what I like to refer to as his own clever manipulation and use of time. C. Michael Bailey wrote in an article that Monk’s style here could be considered as ‘fractured stride … a broken or cracked stroll’, which I find to be an accurate description. It could also be articulated as if it were an inside joke he’s sharing with listeners, and I have no trouble imagining him playing while tossing a knowing glance to his audience, especially at the very end with that twinkle of notes he executes in the highest register.

 “Ruby, My Dear” is definitively my favorite Monk composition. Its endearing melody is a wistful and charming piece that Monk wrote for his first love, Ruby Richardson, most likely while he was still a teenager. She must have been quite fetching to inspire him to conjure up such beauty! I first heard the tune with the melody rendered by Coltrane on the album “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, which was when I not only fell in love with the song but also first became enamored of Monk’s music. 

The version of “Ruby, My Dear” on “Solo Monk”, however, carries even more weight for me as we can hear the exposed tones of a man seeming to return to explore the inner workings of sentimental existence. Monk is unique in that every time he interprets a piece, he approaches it as if he had never played it before and so the music retains a naïve and fresh sensibility. I also appreciate his way of intimating silence as a duet partner on this album. He propels and then pulls the melody, stretching out phrases in certain places longer than in others, using silence to drive the piece forward in a way I’ve rarely heard before. The liner notes [by the late Lee Jeske] articulate this concept best in that “he can take the simplest note and make it count in every way because he knows the musical worth of each sound he makes and each silence he allows.”

Monk again inhabits a ragtime feel on “I’m Confessin’” with his own blustery gusts of sixteenth notes spread throughout the melody. Monk expertly picks and chooses certain notes to omit from the melody during this shorter tune, bringing emphasis to where the listener often least expects it. He again ends the piece tinkling the ivories at the highest octave of the piano and I can’t help but laugh to myself after he repeats the same ‘joke’ at the end of “Dinah”. “Oh, Mr. Monk, you’ve done it again!” The first piece on the B side, “I Hadn’t Anyone til You” concludes in similar melodramatic flourish, in which Monk is like a gymnast vaulting and sticking the perfect landing. As he effectively touches ground on the final notes to “Everything Happens To Me”, Monk once again gets me to beam as he brings back the now familiar trill effect once more.

“Monk’s Point” is a medium-tempo blues number whose melody should be very familiar to most Monk fans, since he would return to that same rhythmic phrase quite often (refer to “Well You Needn’t”). I had to keep moving the needle back on the turntable several times to listen carefully for the technique that Monk used, which the liner notes said he used to create a ‘continuous curve of sound’ by a ‘careful manipulation of piano keys, pedals, fingers and hand positions.’ Urban legend claims that Monk had once strived to become a piano virtuoso. While his technique might have never achieved such technical heights, listening to him create those ‘curves of sound’ put virtuosity in a distant third place behind invention and uniqueness.

In the next song, “Ask Me Now”, which flies high among my favorite pieces, Monk stretches out even further, weaving his way through the piece with his characteristic, cascading whole tone scales raining down on the keys typically to close out phrases. When restating the head toward the end, he engages a dramatic pause on the second to last phrase and completes the line by letting the notes sustain and ring out. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and here Monk is at his finest on this record. 

Monk closes out the B side with “These Foolish Things”, a well-worn ballad transformed by the ‘genius of modern music’ just as we’d expect. Again, his masterful toying with tempo suddenly converts a ballad I’ve heard a thousand times into a piece that’s charmingly unique and new. For added emphasis, he restates the melody in octaves, slowing down and then purposely avoiding resolution to that phrase to close out the album. Given what we know about Monk by now, this is a typically atypical ending to a beautiful, unaccompanied album by the master.


A short reprise back to my experience in elementary school, which seems burned into my memory banks much like Monk’s interpretation of melodies, time was fluid while I played my saxophone to the entire school over the intercom. To my own great surprise, the notes somehow managed to come out through the bell of my horn without even one squeak [a star is born :-)] and I was even greeted with warm applause when I returned to my classroom! Overcoming nerves, living in that space where I felt musically exposed was a special feeling after all. A space Monk inhabits so very naturally and freely here throughout “Solo Monk.” It’s only too bad I wasn’t yet familiar with Monk’s music; maybe I would have had to insert a couple of those whole tone scales or embellish some fun trills at the endings like him

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The Making of Misterioso

By Julion St Hill

The Making of Misterioso

 

 

By DJ Pari


It’s shortly after 7 p.m. on Aug. 7, 1958, a hot, humid summer night in New York City. Upon walking through the doors of the Five Spot Café, a popular storefront bar in the Bowery neighborhood between the East and West Village, you find yourself in a crowded, dark den shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke, a small, but rewardingly intimate setting, the atmosphere tinged with the bite of a gin cocktail. The walls are plastered with mirrors, photos and posters, curtains, and tapestries, saw dust covers the floor, but there isn’t a stage, only some slightly raised flooring at the end of the room, barely wide enough to fit a drum kit and an old upright piano.

 


Behind it sits a towering figure, immersed in thought, backlit clouds of smoke wafting around him. It’s Monk, in deep concentration, oblivious to the faint chink of cutlery and quiet conversation and laughter still filling the air. He places his long, slender fingers on the keys, preparing to hit that first note, as his sidemen watch in anticipation. Just a few steps from the bandstand, Orrin Keepnews, record producer and owner of Riverside Records, and engineer Ray Fowler sit behind the controls of a two-track tape recorder. Keepnews is here to record Monk’s sets to be released later that year on two albums; Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. Because of when, where and how this music was recorded, and due to Monk’s selection of musicians to accompany him, the latter set today is considered one of the pianist’s most intriguing albums and the first successful attempt at capturing his live performances on tape. It is the perfect storm.

 To fully understand the magic of Misterioso, let’s step back for a minute and examine the historical context, beginning with the venue, which is as much a star on this album as the artist whose name graces the cover. The Five Spot Café, a small jazz joint with a capacity of 75 seated, was opened by Joe and Iggy Termini, two brothers with deep family roots in the Bowery, in late August 1956. Their bar quickly became a favorite hangout for many writers and beat poets, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and abstract expressionist painters like Frank Kline, Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning. The patrons were united in their attraction to the creative consolidation of jazz in the 1950s, as propagated by the genre’s progressive modernists, most notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

 

But Monk would have to wait almost an entire year for his Five Spot debut (the honor of the club’s first long-term engagement was bestowed on pianist Cecil Taylor), until the long suspension of his cabaret card, which he had lost after a drug bust on Bud Powell several years earlier resulting in a drawn out seclusion from public performing that his wife Nellie called the un-years, had been resolved. With the help of the Termini brothers, his card was returned, and Monk took up his first six-months residency, beginning July 4, 1957, working six nights a week, four sets a night. At first, Monk performed with Cecil Payne and Duke Jordan’s group, but after two weeks he brought in his own quartet that featured John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately, there are no recordings documenting this first stint at the Five Spot; the artists’ various contractual obligations prevented such documentation.


However, Monk returned to the Five Spot in the following year, in his pocket his contract for a second engagement, lasting eight weeks. Excited with the pianist’s return, the Termini brothers hailed the Five Spot as the “home of Thelonious Monk.” And this time, the pianist took a different group, substituting Ware with 21-year old bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Wilson with Roy Haynes, a former drummer in Charlie Parker’s quintet. The most noticeable change was the replacement of Coltrane by Chicago native Johnny Griffin, who had just finished a brief stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Monk’s decision to hire Griffin proved controversial at first. When the group kicked off their residency on June 12, 1958, the saxophonist came unprepared. Unfamiliar with Monk’s repertoire, he struggled to solo over the pianist’s dissonant, asymmetrical comping and the sonic complexity of his compositions, essentially trying to learn the tunes and work through their changes on the bandstand. Monk, graciously sensitive to his sideman’s throes, often left to the bar for a drink or danced among the audience, allowing Griffin more space to play (something that he had done for Coltrane as well in the previous year). 


Keepnews’ first pursuit to record the quartet during two sets at the Five Sport on July 9 was unsatisfactory, and Monk did not approve of a release (although some of the material would eventually emerge after his death). At a second attempt a month later, during an evening show on August 7 before a capacity crowd, the group was nearing the end of the residency, really playing together, communicating with telepathic powers. And this time, Keepnews struck gold.

 

Kicking off the set is the buoyant mid-tempo swinger “Nutty;” the group takes the audience into familiar territory. Monk first cut the tune during a recording session for Prestige in 1954, making it up on the spot, and it had become an often-played staple in his repertoire. After Monk’s introduction of the theme, Griffin comes in, stating it again in unison with the pianist. Then Griffin’s solo ensues, and it’s clear that the saxophonist has overcome his battle with the challenging intricacies of Monk’s compositions, his notes floating freely and confidently, in double-time, dancing on top of the pianist’s abstract chords. Monk’s own solo, as so often, defies most rules of logical chord construction, playing expressively yet deliberate, until Griffin picks up the theme once again.

“Blues Five Spot,” the only new tune on Misterioso, is a bubbly ballad based on an unaccompanied original called “Dreamland” that Monk rarely performed, renamed here for the purpose of paying tribute to the host venue. A successful exercise in unmasked humor on the bandstand, Monk and Griffin’s solos are exceptional, despite the saxophonist’s occasional tendencies to allow his technical prowess to outshine his creative wit, with Abdul-Malik and Haynes reliably grooving deep in the tune’s undercurrent. 

What comes next is one of the album’s highlights, a first crescendo before the big detonation. The nine-minute workout of “Let’s Cool One,” first recorded for Blue Note in 1952 and a favorite that would reappear in countless carnations throughout Monk’s career, marks Griffin’s grand moment on Misterioso. Monk’s laid-back stating of the familiar melody, eventually joined by Griffin, barely pierces through the chatter from the audience, evidence of their utter unpreparedness for what comes next. Ready to take the spotlight, Griffin shouts: “I got it, I got it,” prompting Monk to lay out, which the saxophonist takes as his cue to send out a flurry of notes before launching into a ferocious sermon, squeaking and wailing and attacking the theme, exploring its melodic possibilities while Monk, sitting quietly, likely wiping his face with one of Nellie’s huge, sweat-soaked handmade handkerchiefs, watches in awe as Griffin ascends to the summit. When he hits the climax, Haynes’ famous snap-crackle snaps the mesmerized listeners out of their hypnosis, the small room fills with thunderous applause and shouts of cheer as Monk, smiling knowingly, brings the tune home, a perfect ending for side A. 

Upon flipping the record, boom, “In Walked Bud,” another favorite and the most thrilling 11 minutes on Misterioso. In this tribute to Monk’s understudy Bud Powell, based on the chord progression of Irving Berlin's “Blue Skies,” everyone gets to shine. Monk sets up the mood with his 8-bar introduction of the theme, Griffin plays quirky and full of confidence, Abdul-Malik solos, with a groove locked air tight, Haynes demonstrates his impeccable timing and lively touch. And Monk, well, he is trying to out-Monk himself, swinging hard, reveling in his trademark tonal dissonance.

Next up, “Just a Gigolo,” the only song on this album not composed by Monk, which may explain why he keeps it short and sweet, just under three minutes, unaccompanied. Use it to catch your breath, have a sip of wine, get ready for the encore. The closing track lends the album its name, one of Monk’s earliest compositions, dating back to his first Blue Note sessions in 1948. Here, the quartet picks up the pace and turns the tune inside out, over 11 minutes, brevity isn’t a thing yet. In his liner notes, Keepnews muses that Misterioso is more than just the name of a tune, but an “extremely Monk-like song title, evoking by its mild play on words (linking ‘mist’ and ‘mystery’.)” This makes perfect sense of course, except when it does not, which in itself is a very Monk-ish concept. Curtain call, picture Monk and his group exit the bandstand in a cloud of saw dust, headed to the bar for a night cap. 


Of course one cannot talk about Misterioso without giving a tip of the hat to the cover art, which features a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s 1915 painting The Seer. Surely the Italian surrealist didn’t foresee his work would make it on the cover of a jazz album (it was a tribute to French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and you can view the original at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City). But given the time, and location, that birthed Misterioso, it was a perfect choice, appealing to the Five Sport’s mostly bohemian clientele. That said, Misterioso was originally greeted with mixed reviews; with much criticism aimed at Griffin’s performance. For example, in his review for Hi Fi Review magazine, Jazz critic Nat Hentoff found that it was not one of the pianist's best albums, reprimanding it for “too little space for Monk's soloing and somewhat too much” for Griffin, whose saxophone cry and timing were more impressive than his solos.


Well, you know what they say about opinions. While Griffin is neither Coltrane nor Charlie Rouse, his successor in Monk’s band, he may just be the perfect choice for this album. And if Hentoff’s review of Misterioso implies a degree of blandness, one might argue that more than 60 years after it was recorded, it provides not only a rare snapshot of a formative phase in Monk’s career, but it is our time capsule, inviting us back to that hot, humid summer night in August 1958, allowing us to not just poke our heads through the doors of the smoke-filled Five Spot Café, but to spend the night swaying to the contours of some of Monk’s best music, performed in an environment that inspired the pianist to play less introspectively and more vividly than in the traditional studio setting that makes up the vast majority of his records. Though Monk’s performance on Misterioso may not be the best of his long career and may not be entirely unique in its ability to bring you musical euphoria, if you give it a chance, Misterioso will grow on you, slowly but surely, and before you know it, it will undoubtedly be a frequent culprit, if not a favorite on your turntable.


DJ Pari is a Richmond, VA, based writer, editor and jazz vinyl aficionado. He also has a second life in the music business, with DJ performances on five continents and collaborations with legends from James Brown to the Impressions of Curtis Mayfield fame. 

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