On October 27th, 1968, renowned jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and his quartet came to Palo Alto, California, to perform a concert at the town's high school.
The concert was booked by a young student promoter, Danny Scher, who felt that a concert featuring a legendary musician such as Thelonious Monk could possibly—at least for a time—help to build some unity by the two communities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto right "across the tracks" from one another.
East Palo Alto was composed of mostly African American citizens whose town was adrift in economic despair from the super highway that was built in the mid to late ‘50s, tearing down businesses and creating greater economic strife with no jobs and an uncertain future.
The evening of the concert brought black and white students and jazz lovers of all ages together at the high school auditorium for what many have described musically as some of "the fiercest, most spirited versions of Monk’s core repertoire to a cheering diverse audience."
Now, 53 years later, Thelonious Monk's son T.S. Monk has had this live performance remastered and released for the first time after the recording was discovered sitting on a shelf.
I followed-up with T.S. about when and how he discovered the recordings and why he believes this record is "quintessential" Thelonious Monk.
I know my music can help bring people together, and that’s what is important.”
— Thelonious Monk
T.S. Monk Interview
Robert Walker (RW): T.S., tell us about Oct. 27th, 1968, the day your father and his quartet came to East Palo Alto to perform a concert at the high school. What is your recollection of why this concert turned out to be significant now 53 years later?
T.S. Monk (TS): Unfortunately, I had just finished high school, and was completely unaware of this concert. I didn’t find out about its existence until about 2005 or so. However, it's significant because, given its timing, location, and level of performance, it's clear the band was in top shape and Monk was at his best.
RW: It was suggested in another article I read that, for Thelonious, because of lack of income on the home front and any support from his record label—and some personal health issues—that Palo Alto show was more about getting the $500 payment than any political activism desires. And yet, the music played by the quartet may be some of the best ever captured from him live. What do you say to this and how did you come into possession of the recording to remaster it?
TS: Thelonious was working in Berkeley at the time, and—given he was at his height in popularity having been on the cover of Time mag—despite conjecture, I doubt that money was really a primary motivator. Thelonious had a quartet and $500 does not go very far among four people. I was made aware of the concert's existence when contacted by Danny Scher first in the late '90s but paid no attention until the story was brought to my attention maybe a decade later.
RW: Many years have passed since 1968, and back then, African Americans and women seemed to be dealing with these acts of terror: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, and a country dealing with very real race and cultural divides. What do you think the difference is between today and 1968? What was different for hundreds of years before 1968?
TS: Frankly, I see no difference. Sadly, the issues confronting Black America have not changed significantly. The city of Palo Alto was racially divided then, as America is today. Perhaps today, it’s even more divided in many ways. To believe Monk was unaware or unaffected by the racial turmoil of the times is to think he was simply a servant playing the piano, and not a genius. I’m sure he was conscious of the racial atmosphere surrounding Palo Alto and the whole country.
RW: Who did you work with on getting this Palo Alto recording remastered and how has it been received so far with Thelonious Monk fans?
TS: I worked with Grandmixer DXT, father of the scratching technique made so popular in the 1990s. He happens to be a brilliant recording engineer, who also worked with me on the Monk & Coltrane at Carnegie Hall live concert released on Blue Note several years ago. Palo Alto has received a five-star rating by both critics and the public since its release this past July, and most recently won “Jazz Recording of the Year” in Japan.
RW: For you, what is the beauty of Monk: Palo Alto?
TS: It’s simply a live recording by one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz, led by the "Father of Modern Jazz."
RW: Where can people purchase this record? And where can people follow you and this wonderful legacy of Thelonious Monk on social media?
TS: Everywhere. iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, the Universal Music website, record stores, etc. Everywhere!
Thank you T.S. for bringing this recording of your father to light. It certainly adds to the legacy of one the world’s greatest music icons.
What Was Happening in 1968?: The Historical Context of Monk's Recording
In 1968, America seemed to be coming unhinged with social, political, and economic challenges that were exacerbated by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, followed by the election of Richard M. Nixon.
It was the year of the Democratic National Convention where thousands of students, antiwar activists, and other demonstrators, including groups like the Yippies, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers, were met with a violent police response called out by Mayor Richard Daley and broadcast into American homes on TV. To many, it simply seemed like anarchy—perhaps in the way the siege on the United States Capitol appeared to most of us watching from home on January 6th, 2021 (53 years later).
And who can ever forget the iconic photo of the "black power" show of support from two Olympians, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who stood on those podiums after receiving their medals, arms stretched out with their hands clenched in a fist donning a black leather glove as the National Anthem played out to the world. To this day, that photo of the two Olympians remains one of the most powerful images captured in sports history.
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