Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s afforded me access to incredible, cutting-edge radio. It was the height of the progressive FM radio era, and no station in the country understood its market opportunity better than KSAN, rock radio legend Tom Donohue’s creation that gave a musical platform to breaking local, national and international acts who remain the backbone of the “classic rock” radio format.
While the bulk of the programming exposed rock and roll recordings introduced by the local hip DJ (the voice of Bob McClay referring to KSAN as the “Jive 95” lives on in my unconscious), for a year or two I looked forward with great enthusiasm to the Sunday evening jazz show hosted by Orrin Keepnews, the co-founder of New York’s Riverside Records — by then long in bankruptcy but whose recordings were already a staple of recorded jazz history. His shows weren’t solely responsible for introducing me to the artists on his labels (including Milestone at the time — an offshoot of Berkeley’s Fantasy Records, where Keepnews was head of A & R), but they were a culprit for perpetuating my curiosity of them.
His extended radio monologues about Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans in particular evoke memories of his broad, commanding voice entering my darkened bedroom through $99 JBL speakers, his personal stories inspiring further interest in what was clear even then to my teenage ears to be brilliant, life-affirming music.
As I got to know more about Riverside through these radio programs he became a teacher in another medium — through his articulate and entertaining liner notes, and among the most memorable were those written for The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall recording of February 28, 1959. The concert was the brainchild of Monk’s manager Harry Colomby and his brother Jules, produced at a time when Monk’s work opportunities were especially uncertain. This concert led to the necessity of hiring an arranger, a job Monk had little interest in. He is quoted by his biographer Robin D.G. Kelley as saying, “As for writing for a full orchestra, I’ve done that years back for all kinds of pieces. I haven’t been doing it because I’m not the kind of person who likes to arrange, and they don’t pay enough for arrangements anyway.” Monk’s choice of Hall Overton came about, Kelley writes, “in part because he considered Hall one of the few people who genuinely understood his music.”
In celebration of this recording’s 55th anniversary (which precedes Keepnews’ 91st birthday by two days), what follows are Keepnews’ liner notes to the Riverside Records release of The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall.
Riverside RLP 12 – 300Thelonious Monk, piano; Donald Byrd, trumpet; Eddie Bert, trombone; Phil Woods, alto sax; Charlie Rouse, tenor sax; Pepper Adams, baritone sax; Robert Northern, French horn; Jay McAllister, bass; Sam Jones, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in concert in New York City; February 28, 1959.
This album presents the music of THELONIOUS MONK in a new kind of setting: different from (although a fully logical extension of) any way in which he has been presented before. Certainly one of the most important points to be noted about this debut performance by the Monk orchestra is that it celebrates the fact that Thelonious is still at it – still creating and building as ever, still refusing to stand in one place and let the world catch up with him. More precisely, he is refusing to let the world, once it has caught up, stay abreast of him for very long.
In this respect, Monk is merely justifying the frequent description of him as a “pioneer.” If I remember my history, it was the habit that noted frontiersman, Daniel Boone, to establish a new settlement and then, when it had developed into a properly domesticated village, to strike out into the wilderness again, in further search of new territory and sufficient elbow-room.
Like most analogies, this puts things a little too patly. In turning to ten-piece orchestrations of some of his works, Thelonious is not turning away from what he has done before, but instead is beginning the task of adding a new dimension. (Actually, this concert also included several selections by a ‘standard’ Monk quartet.) However, it is quite accurate to emphasize the analogy by pointing out that whole cities of Monk fans and followers have now sprung up where once, not at all long ago, he existed almost in solitude within what many regarded as an impenetrable musical wilderness.
For almost two decades — ever since he played his important role in the first eruption of modern jazz — Monk has been developing a body of musical composition, performance and influence that now clearly marks him as a creative figure of truly gigantic proportions. But for most of those two decades, most jazz listeners, the majority of critics and even some musicians considered Thelonious to be at best a frighteningly “far out” and difficult artist, at worst an eccentric of small merit who played the piano incorrectly. Then, with a surge that made it seem as if a dam had broken somewhere, Thelonious was “discovered.” Suddenly (and rather gratifyingly) things were turned around and in most jazz circles it was the anti-Monk element and the shoulder-shruggers, rather than the Monk partisans, who were considered the odd-ball minority. I think it was partly that a dam had burst: that exposure to his work (in 1957, for the first time in many years, Thelonious became available on a regular six-night-a-week basis to New York night club audiences), and to the work of many increasingly popular musicians strongly influenced by Monk, had worn down the barrier that separated so many people from him. I think it was also partly that Monk himself, seeming almost to thrive on public indifference, had been constantly growing as a creative artist until he reached a point where it was literally impossible to ignore him any longer.
At any rate, 1958 was a year of attention and honors: of good reviews and feature articles and high standing in popularity polls. Which made it quite fitting that, at the end of the second month of 1959, Thelonious offered the first public appearance of something new…
The full, pervasive sound of this orchestra seems to me an exciting and long overdue extension of Monk’s music – which, even when played by very small groups, always tends to suggest rich and “big” sonorities. (But, as some reviews of this concert have indicated, there will be those who do not approve of this new step. Personally, I welcome this return of controversy to the world of Monk’s music – I really think that Thelonious belongs at least a little apart from overwhelming acceptance, that he may even function more creatively when he is out on the frontier building something that the multitudes of settlers can accept fully whenever they are able to catch up.)
Monk’s new move was actually not sudden, nor was it deliberately timed for this moment. The idea of fuller orchestration has been in his mind for a long time; it became feasible only recently. Monk’s long-time friend, Jules Colomby, helped greatly in implementing the idea, eventually by helping to assemble the orchestra and by producing (with the cooperation of Marc Smilow) this concert, but initially by suggesting that Thelonious get together with HALL OVERTON, who seemed extremely well qualified to assist in this venture. Overton has been active since 1946 as composer, pianist and teacher in both jazz and concert music; he is also a Monk enthusiast of long standing. His function turned out to be a unique one, and is actually somewhat difficult to pin down and describe precisely. It involved transcribing, orchestrating, arranging, using both his considerable formal musical training and his sensitive affection for Monk’s work to score these six numbers in collaboration with and under the supervision of Thelonious. The concepts are all Monk’s, but his experience in small-band jazz, understandably enough, had not set him up for the kind of formal orchestration needed here. To have farmed the job out to an arranger would hardly have done the trick: what was wanted was not some specific arranger’s musical ideas or sound; nor was it merely a standard “big band” sound. What was wanted, and what was achieved by this unorthodox collaboration, was an expansion that provides a much fuller presentation of Monk’s rhythmic and harmonic ideas than could be possible with the smaller groups he has previously worked with – but that still preserves the ‘pure’ Monk sound and feeling.
For the most part, these selections speak for themselves, but a few specific comments are indicated. Thelonious and Off Minor were written and first recorded in the late 1940s; Crepescule with Nellie was introduced on a 1957 Riverside album (RLP 12 – 242); the other three date from the early ’50s. Little Rootie Tootie (the name comes from an early nickname for Monk’s son) is the one real tour de force and was undoubtedly the most startling number on the concert program; the ensemble passages are a full-band scoring of Monk’s piano solo on his original trio recording of the number! Thelonious is presented in partial form here because monk, with characteristic perfectionism, decided on listening to the tapes that he didn’t approve of his own solo: since the number bears his name, he suggested that one ensemble chorus would make a fitting introductory “theme song” for the record.
The orchestra itself includes a number of top jazz names, but the members were selected for known ability to interpret Monk’s music and for potential ability to become a solid unit, rather than for individual virtuosity. In addition to Monk’s choruses, there is solo work by Donald Byrd, Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods, Eddie Bert and Pepper Adams. Byrd hits a couple of high spots and Woods has what strikes me as a particularly memorable solo on Friday the 13th; but, as it should be, the real stars of the proceedings are Thelonious Monk and The Thelonious Monk Orchestra as a whole.
These W. Eugene Smith photos were taken during rehearsal for The Town Hall Concert, and are part of a collection known as “The Jazz Loft Project”
Monk with Hall Overton
Orrin Keepnews discusses the Town Hall Concert with the Jazz Video Guy
Read our interview with Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley