Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Thelonious Monk Orchestra: At Town Hall

Riverside Recordings
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: At Town Hall

You can't be a true jazz fan if you don't acknowledge the tremendous contribution that Thelonious Monk made to the genre. 

He was born in 1917 in North Carolina, moved to New York two years later, and began playing piano at age 9. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year (1935) and began to play in the famous jazz clubs that abounded in the city. 

In 1941, he was hired by drummer Kenny Clarke, then a fixture at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. That's where Monk made his mark among the younger musicians of that time, who were busy creating bebop. Monk became fast friends with Bud Powell, the first bop pianist. 

His skills weren't only recognized by the young artists. I remember an old film that was shot at Minton's, where Count Basie was seated next to Monk's piano, listening to him play; the look on Basie's face said it all. He had a smile a mile wide. The famous Coleman Hawkins, also a fan, hired Monk in 1944. 

Monk made his first recording in 1941, but he didn't start to get the exposure he deserved until '52, when Blue Note signed him. About that time, however, he was arrested for drug possession and lost his cabaret license, which meant he couldn't work legally in New York. 

It was a false accusation: Powell was the real culprit, and Monk had "covered" for him. Six years passed before Monk got his license back. 

Monk was so advanced that even the recording studios that covered jazz were slow to sign him, and they didn't keep him for long. Blue Note, Vogue and Columbia were among the labels that dropped him before he signed with Riverside. This Town Hall concert was recorded live in 1959 and initially released on LP. Riverside, bless them, has begun to re-master and re-release some of the classic records made through the 1950s and '60s; this is one of them. 

The band was legendary: Donald Byrd, Phil Woods and Pepper Adams were among the sidemen. All tunes are Monk originals; when you realize this was done almost 50 years ago, you begin to perceive just how far ahead of everyone he was. Unlike almost all the pianists of that era, Monk was a true two-handed player. He also was among the first to realize the importance of "space and silence."

I've never forgotten one of his quotes, taken from an interview in 1961: "You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords, and make it sound wrong. It's making it sound right that's not easy." 

If you've always been a fan, renew your enthusiasm; if he's new to you, listen and become amazed ... along with those of us who've already realized his genius. 

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