A Previously Unreleased Thelonious Monk Concert Is Coming Next Month

Jun 23, 2020
Originally published on June 19, 2020 5:55 am

The summer of 1968 looked like the summer of 2020. Americans were in the streets protesting racism, among other things. And a high school student in Palo Alto, Calif., got in on the action by enlisting the help of a jazz legend. Danny Scher came up with the idea to book Thelonious Monk to play his school's auditorium and now, a professional recording of this concert will be released publicly for the first time on July 31. The album is called Palo Alto.

The fact that the concert was recorded at all is almost "by happenstance," says WBGO and Jazz Night in America's Nate Chinen. "The day before the event, Danny was approached by a school janitor, who said: 'If you let me record the concert, I'll get the piano tuned.' So Danny (who, remember, is a teenager), was like: 'Uh, sure!' "

The identity of the janitor remains unknown, but after the show, he handed the tape over to Scher, who has held onto it for over 50 years.

NPR's Noel King talks to Nate Chinen about where Thelonious Monk was in his career at the time of the concert, how the community politics in Palo Alto in 1968 affected the show and how the album resonates in the present day. Listen to the interview, including unreleased music from Palo Alto, in the audio player above.

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The summer of 1968 looked a lot like the summer of 2020. Americans were out in the streets protesting racism, among other things, and a high school kid in California got in on the action by enlisting the help of a jazz legend.


THELONIOUS MONK: (Playing music).

KING: This is a very special recording. And you listening are among the very first people to hear it in more than 50 years. This is Thelonious Monk being recorded in a high school auditorium in Palo Alto, Calif. Next month, it's being released commercially.

Nate Chinen has been looking into this untold story. Nate's with member station WBGO and the show "Jazz Night In America." Hey, Nate.


KING: Thelonious Monk was a jazz superstar, but I don't know that I've ever heard about him taking a really active role in the civil rights movement. Was this unusual for him?

CHINEN: Well, it was in the sense that Monk was a pretty taciturn figure. He was a bit inscrutable. A lot of people called him eccentric. He wasn't someone who would go out and give a speech or, you know, give voice to, you know, a kind of protest sentiment.

But he'd certainly suffered his share of racism and discrimination and even injustice at the hands of the police, which was the case for many jazz musicians at the time. Monk was one of jazz's greatest composers. But by 1968, he was having a bit of a rough patch. You know, he'd been in a coma due to a seizure. Critics were saying that he'd gone stagnant, and he was indebted to his record label.

But he still had something important going for him, which was this terrific band and the adulation of serious jazz fans. And one of those was an enterprising high school kid named Danny Scher who came up with the idea to book Monk at his school. Danny went on to become a concert promoter. We recently connected over a video chat.

DANNY SCHER: Before I promoted my first concert, I was listening to jazz my whole life, (laughter) which wasn't very long really at that point. And I knew I lived in a predominantly white community, Palo Alto, across from a predominately black community, East Palo Alto - that when you were kind of growing up, it was, well, you never stopped in East Palo Alto. You know, you just drive through to get to the Dumbarton Bridge to get to the East Bay.

CHINEN: So that's Danny Scher reflecting, you know, retrospectively on his white privilege at the time. You know, there was civil unrest across the country in 1968, and East Palo Alto was one of those communities that saw that. It was an unincorporated area, so its residents didn't have a say in governance. And there was actually a group of African American community leaders there spearheading a referendum to rename the town Nairobi after the Kenyan capital.

KING: God, that's interesting. How is it, though, that a teenage kid convinces Thelonious Monk to come and play at his high school?

CHINEN: Well, he saw that Monk had an engagement coming up at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, which is about 30 miles from Palo Alto. So Danny reached out to Monk's manager, and he proposed an afternoon concert as a benefit for the school's International Club, which supported educational initiatives in Kenya and Peru. And I recently spoke not only with Danny but also with Monk's biographer, the scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, who shed some valuable light on this moment.

ROBIN D G KELLEY: Monk's concert was scheduled - was organized for October 1968. The referendum was scheduled for the week after that - just coincidence. So you got to imagine this Jewish kid going into East Palo Alto, putting up posters advertising Monk's impending concert, and he's competing with other posters that are saying vote "yes" on Nairobi. You know? And part of what the concert afforded was this opportunity to kind of - I wouldn't say desegregate but to break this impasse, to bring people together in this space, you know, around music.

KING: OK. So Thelonious Monk and his band come to this high school. How does the gig end up being professionally recorded?

CHINEN: That's another interesting part of this story. It was basically by happenstance. The day before the concert, Danny was approached by a school janitor who told him, look; if you let me record this concert, I'll make sure that the piano gets tuned.

KING: So the recording engineer here was the high school's janitor.

CHINEN: That's right. He was one of several African American janitors at the school. He liked to record things as a hobby. Let's hear, actually, a little bit of his handiwork here. This is a tune called "Well You Needn't."


MONK: (Playing music).

KING: You just got to love it.

CHINEN: Yeah, the band is so swinging.


MONK: (Playing music).

CHINEN: So they're playing in this high school auditorium. When the show's over, the janitor hands this tape to Danny. And unfortunately, he hasn't been able to locate the name of this janitor; he's looked through the yearbook. So the identity of the recording engineer is still unknown, but he did us all a big favor.

KING: Yeah, he sure did. So that's 52 years ago now. What happened to the recordings?

CHINEN: For a long time, not much. But a handful of years ago, Danny contacted Monk's son, T.S. Monk, who controls the estate. And they went back and forth for years before finally coming to an agreement - though in the end, I think the timing feels actually quite fortuitous.

KING: Yeah, it sure does. You've been writing about jazz for years and years. What is special about what we hear on these tapes?

CHINEN: Well, first of all, it's a really fabulous document of Monk's band. You know? And his playing is incredibly sharp. And then when you know the story behind it, there's so much resonance there, even a connection to our own moment of protest and reckoning. In fact, that's an idea that Danny Scher expressed when we talked.

SCHER: It's really sad when you think of how little progress we've made. But on the other hand, think of what music does. Music brings peace, and music can bring love.


MONK: (Playing music).

KING: Nate Chinen covers jazz for member station WBGO and "Jazz Night In America." This long lost recording of Thelonious Monk will be released next month as the album "Palo Alto."

Nate, I love every bit of it. Thank you so much.

CHINEN: Thank you, Noel.


MONK: (Playing music). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.