Graham Reid | | 3 min read
The story is so unexpected and unusual that it just has to be true: Thelonious Monk and his group playing at a high school in Palo Alto, Northern California in October '68 at a concert organised by a 16-year old fan . . . and the concert being recorded by the janitor.
And until recently no one knew the recording existed, not even Monk researcher Robin D G Kelley who wrote the magisterial Monk biography The Life and Times of an American Original in which he devotes two pages to the concert, but never mentions a recording.
That's because the tape had been kept in an attic for half a century until the owner took it out and approached Monk's son TS Monk with it with a view to getting it released.
Now digitally restored (it sounds excellent given its provenance) the Palo Alto recording – on Impulse! – is available for the first time.
This was not a good period for 51-year old Monk who would increasingly retreat into an almost catatonic and reclusive state which would last for a decade until his death in '82.
There were poor album sales, illness, his business in disarray and his most productive years were behind him. He was on the road to pay the bills.
Yet he was still a genius, although that didn't translate into ticket sales at Palo Alto High School.
The concert was the idea of a 16-year old Jewish kid from a middle-class family, Danny Scher. He was a jazz fan and had previously brought pianist Vince Guaraldi, vibes player Cal Tjader and the vocal trio Lambert Hendricks and Ross to his school to perform.
It was his dream to have Monk and Duke Ellington at the school, even in those volatile times after the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Palo Alto was a racially divided town with affluent whites and poor blacks . . . but there were hands across the divide.
Scher was one of them.
But with tickets for the Monk concert at just $2 he still couldn't sell enough to his predominantly white crowd and so by adding two local bands-- the seven-piece Jimmy Marks Afro Ensemble (featuring Eddie Bo on flute) and Smoke, an avant-garde free jazz band (which featured Kenny Washington) who were popular with the black community – he reached out to the black suburbs in East Palo Alto.
Contracts were signed – Monk never saw one, his manager signed for him – and so while the great pianist was in the area playing an engagement in nearby San Francisco he came to Palo Alto.
Scher's brother drove down and picked the group up and when they got out of the van that Sunday afternoon in the school parking lot – Monk, tenor player Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley – the sceptical saw that this was actually happening and bought last-minute tickets.
Before a racially mixed audience Monk and his band delivered a crowd-pleasing 45-minute set which opened with Ruby My Dear and Well You Needn't and included an embellished solo treatment of Don't Blame Me, Blue Monk and Epistrophy with the pianist returning for a 90 second, hammered solo encore on the old ballad Sweetheart of All My Dreams.
Is the album any good though?
That's a qualified yes, in that there are very few recordings from these closing years of Monk's career and that although the set is familiar, the ensemble swings and sounds like it is enjoying itself (check Gales' witty arco passage in Well You Needn't), even as it goes through some familiar motions.
In the grand scheme of hitherto unreleased recordings, Palo Alto isn't up there with the "lost" Coltrane session Both Directions at Once released two years ago, but it is certainly good to hear.
However others hear it differently and speak of its historical significance.
“It was a great band,” Monk biographer Kelley told the New York Times in a recent interview, “and it was just about to break up. So this is one of the last recordings of this particular configuration,”
“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.”
You can hear this concert on Spotify here