“[Palo Alto is] one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard by Thelonious…I wasn’t even aware of my dad playing a high school gig, but he and the band were on it.” So says T.S. Monk, son of groundbreaking jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. “When I first heard the tape, from the first measure, I knew my father was feeling really good.” The younger Monk is talking about a newly unearthed concert recorded October 27, 1968 which was recently released after a brief delay by Impulse! on CD and vinyl and Legacy Recordings on digital platforms.
The circumstances surrounding the concert are as fascinating as the pianist himself, involving a high school International Committee, a 16-year-old budding concert promoter, and a janitor with a passion for audio recording.
Monk had been invited to play at Palo Alto High School by Danny Scher, who had already organized concerts there with Vince Guaraldi, Jon Hendricks, and Cal Tjader. But getting his idol, the elusive Thelonious Monk, to play at the school would prove a new challenge. The pianist was under new management and faced significant financial and health troubles. Against the backdrop of the unrest of 1968, school administrators feared escalation of racial tensions. As Scher recalls in his liner notes for Palo Alto, “I was warned by the police department in our neighboring predominantly black city, East Palo Alto, to not put up posters in their community.” The warning was ignored.
People wondered whether the mercurial Monk would even bother to show up to the gig. He was doing a three-week stint at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop at the time and, according to Scher, was worried he’d miss his evening obligation at the club if he played the high school gig. Unable to drive, Scher had his brother pick up Monk and the band (tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, drummer Ben Riley) and return them in time for the San Francisco show. Incredibly, the sold-out show was recorded by the high school’s janitor who asked to tape it in return for tuning the piano.
The resulting 47-minute album preserves this one-of-a-kind night. It features a dynamic mix of originals and standards. It begins with a spirited reading of one of Monk’s signature tunes, “Ruby My Dear,” which features Monk comping jauntily as Rouse introduces the melody and Riley swings on drums. Rouse and Monk trade solos throughout, balancing Rouse’s breezy delivery with Monk’s angular, more aggressive approach.
The band follows with “Well, You Needn’t,” its off-kilter theme providing the groundwork for a spirited 13-minute workout that gives each member a chance to shine. Here, Monk delivers a dazzling solo with all the exciting twists and turns that fans had come to expect. Halfway through, the spotlight turns to bassist Gales, whose extended solo provides an opportunity for the band to explore dynamic opportunities even further – especially drummer Riley, who follows Gales’ bowed bass action, interjecting with snare hits as the band builds energy and gives way to an energetic drum solo by Riley. The band closes out the number with another read of the theme and is greeted with thunderous applause.
One of the highlights of the set is Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ “Don’t Blame Me,” a pop standard that had been recorded by the likes of Nat King Cole, Perry Como, J.J. Johnson, and many more. Monk had recorded a solo rendition on 1963’s Criss-Cross and that arrangement is reprised here, showcasing his incredible, stride piano-inflected technique. The band joins in for a 14-minute rendition of Monk’s best-known compositions, “Blue Monk,” which, like many of Monk’s beloved songs, gives the band ample space to move. Here, each member solos within the bluesy construction of the song. Rouse opens with a fairly straight-ahead exploration of the theme, while Monk’s dizzying solo rocks from blues scales to lightning-fast interpolations of the theme. All the while, Gales’ walking bass keeps the soloists grounded, though he also shows off his melodic and syncopated style with a solo halfway through. Finally, Riley steps up to appraise all the possible tonalities of his kit in a blistering solo before leading the band through a few more reads of the verse and theme.
Before the audience can get all their applause out, the band charges into “Epistrophy,” a piece that spotlights Monk’s love for dissonance, full of minor-second intervals and non-chord tones that give the piece an air of confusion, especially when played in as frenzied a manner as it is here. As delightful as it is dizzying, the rendition is a perfect example of what made Monk such an interesting composer and performer. It’s no wonder Impulse! selected it as the lead single for Palo Alto.
The show concludes with a brief jaunt through “I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” a Tin Pan Alley standard performed in his unique stride. It’s captivating even in its brevity, balancing the beauty of the original tune with all those classic Monk minor-seconds. His harmonization of the melody reveals intriguing substitutions that seem to breeze along before abruptly shifting to a collection of dissonant chords to close out the piece. As the audience hollers for more, Monk tells them “We’ve got to hurry back and get to work!”
And so closes a concert that’s so intriguing in its inception and thrilling in its performance as to almost be unbelievable. Even more unlikely is that this janitor’s tape has been exhumed from the attic and now released for all. Monk and his band were living proof of the power to overcome and to join together with music. “I always looked at music as a way to put issues on hold or up to a mirror, whether they be political or social,” Scher reflects in the liner notes to Palo Alto. “On October 27, 1968, there was a truce between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. And that is what music does.” More than 50 years on, in a sociopolitical landscape still dominated by civil unrest, brutality, and injustice, perhaps Monk’s performance can bring us together once more.
Palo Alto is available now on CD, LP, and digital platforms.