In 1968 Thelonious Monk was in poor health, with little money in the bank, and sadly seen in the jazz world as “stale” and “out of touch” by the jazz snobs at Downbeat Magazine(the same ones that thought Miles Davis was violating jazz protocol with the masterpiece Bitches Brew.) Thelonious Monk, the man who just four years earlier had donned the cover of Time Magazine and had penned jazz standards in the 40s and 50s was now in debt and playing wherever he could get a paying gig.
A Palo Alto High School student named Danny Scher was assigned the job of social commissioner. His job was to organize dances and gatherings at the high school. Scher had been a longtime jazz fan since the age of 10, so he wanted to bring a jazz concert to his school. He organized a show with local jazz bands and reached out to Thelonious Monk’s manager to see if he’d play the concert. Monk and his quartet were already playing a three-week stint at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, so for the price of $500 Monk agreed to play a set at Danny’s show.
The results of that show are on this newest release Palo Alto. It’s a grainy document of a legendary jazz composer and performer connecting with a younger generation while proving to the older generations that the Thelonious Monk Quartet could still cook with the best of them.
This concert was never meant to be recorded, but thanks to a high school janitor that said he’d tune the piano for free if he was allowed to record the show, we can now hear this late-era Monk gig in all its raw genius. The classic quartet of Monk on piano, Charlie Rouse on sax, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley lock in for a nearly 50 minute set that showcases Monk standards while showing that this crew can explore and improvise with the best.
Palo Alto is anchored by two epic tracks, the 13-minute “Well You Needn’t” and the 14-minute “Blue Monk”, surrounded by shorter but still significant Monk standards and one Rudy Vallée cover. The gorgeous “Ruby, My Dear” opens the set. Monk’s jaunty piano carries the slow burn song along with the undervalued playing of the great Charlie Rouse. Monk’s playing is unpredictable, yet firmly grounded in his kinetic world. “Well, You Needn’t” continues that kinetic, jaunty exploration, with Monk giving everyone plenty of space to explore and let loose. I can’t say enough about this quartet. With Rouse, Wiley, and Gales backing Thelonious Monk there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do. They knew Monk’s eccentricities and musical peculiarities by this point, so taking the musical journey with Monk was second nature to them.
The other centerpiece is the boogie woogie slide of “Blue Monk”, another jazz standard from Monk’s vast musical career. Part ragtime, part tin pan alley blues, and hard bop DNA strand but all Monk, the quartet explores and expounds on the nature of Monk’s compositional skills by tearing the track down and building it back up for that packed gymnasium to watch and experience.
In the scheme of things, Palo Alto wasn’t a monumental shift in the career of Thelonious Monk. It was a minor occurrence in the career of a jazz giant. A paying gig. But the major significance here is the fact that this show brought a divided Palo Alto together, blacks and whites in one gym on a rainy afternoon and watched in awe together a master of his craft doing his thing. And thanks to a janitor with the foresight to see this show’s importance and significance in the grand scheme of things, we can hear this amazing show with our own ears.
9.3 out of 10