Monk: Civil Rights and Unearthed Delights

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Slightly inaccessible and highly quirky, Thelonious Sphere Monk holds a special place in my jazz collection. He was of the ilk who went by a single moniker, Monk. He was cool beyond cool—a true individualist and jazz ambassador all at once. Monk didn’t just think outside the box; he ripped it up and threw it away. There was no doubt he was a musical genius and because of it a genius magnet, attracting vanguard collaborators the likes of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan.

Monk didn’t just think outside the box; he ripped it up and threw it away.

Monk was one of the first jazz artists I started collecting and it was his brief stint on Blue Note Records that reeled me in. Don’t get me wrong, I adore his sessions on Prestige with Sonny Rollins and especially his time on Columbia, but listening to the two-part “Genius of Modern Music” sessions one can gain early-career insight and a glimpse into the mind of a prodigy. Also, these recordings showcase early performances of some of Monk’s most enduring jazz compositions, including “Ruby, My Dear”, “In Walked Bud”, “‘Round Midnight”, “Well, You Needn’t” and “Straight, No Chaser”, all of which are considered jazz standards.

Hipsters unite! Impulse! offers this historic release on CD or as a handsome 180 gram vinyl set. There was a good deal of design and research that went into this package and it shows with the attention to detail one would expect from Impulse! Records. Includes two booklets and a poster.

Monk played differently and thought differently and that’s what makes him so endearing to listen to and collect. So, when I heard about a July 31 release on Impulse! of an unissued 1968 live performance I was beside myself. And what a venue—a high school auditorium! The music, at least the one track I’ve been able to preview, is excellent and is to be expected. Monk’s established 60s quartet is in tow, including Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. The interplay is that of a seasoned group—relaxed, angular and swinging, not unlike that of Monk’s contemporary releases on Columbia Records.

Monk and fellow jazz giant, Dizzy Gillespie, cutting up. Circa 1960s. Photo by Jim Marshall.

The audio fidelity is surprisingly strong and clear given the recording was engineered by a high school janitor. Which leads me to the amazing story behind this historic recording. Danny Scher, a Jewish 16-year-old jazz fan, wanted to book Monk for a benefit performance at his high school auditorium in Palo Alto, California, a predominantly white town 40 minutes outside of San Francisco. The year was 1968, a time not unlike our own, with riots over racism and social inequality. The Vietnam War had no end in sight and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated—the country was still in mourning and being torn apart at the seams. And in the midst of this torrent of cultural upheaval an olive branch was extended and accepted. The Monk Quartet agreed to play and Scher got to work promoting the concert which would take him into neighboring East Palo Alto, a predominantly African-American community. Scher hung posters next to advertisements promoting a referendum on changing the town name to Nairobi. Notwithstanding the surrounding racial tension, the Monk performance brought the two towns together. The concert, including a 14-minute version of “Blue Monk”, was serendipitously recorded by the janitor who offered his services if he also promised to tune the school piano. And thanks to that still unidentified jazz fan, in addition to the work of Danny Scher, Monk’s estate and Impulse! Records, we’re able to partake in this historic concert 52 years later.

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