Reviewed by Marty Sartini Garner
Thelonious Monk once said: “Weird means something you never heard before. It’s weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird.” By the time Monk and his quartet strode into the auditorium at Palo Alto High School on October 27, 1968, people hadn’t just gotten around to his oblong, minimalist take on jazz—they’d left it behind. After decades of toiling in New York’s clubs to little outside recognition, Monk had briefly tasted superstardom, culminating in a 1964 Time magazine cover. Less than half a decade later, he’d slipped to No. 6 on DownBeat’s International Critics Poll ranking jazz’s best pianists, and writers routinely dismissed his playing as stale and uninspired. Still, he was Thelonious Sphere Monk: If he was no longer weird, and no longer a superstar, he was still a legend. A legend who couldn’t afford to miss a $500 payday at a high school.
The live album Palo Alto is a grainy snapshot of Monk and his classic quartet taking a break from their two-week stand at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop to cut loose and get paid. But just as Monk’s music was characterized by the power of its empty spaces—he’s the person who said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s those you leave out,” a chestnut as well-worn as any of his songs—Palo Alto’s thrills are made poignant by what was happening in his life unbeknownst to the audience, and what was happening in their life unbeknownst to Monk. This is exuberant, abundant music, made by and performed for people whose lives often felt anything but.
Monk was in debt to the IRS. His wife, Nellie, took ill, then Monk did, too. A seizure in May of 1968 put him in a coma that caused him to miss several recording dates; his label, Columbia, charged him for the studio time. He needed every dollar he could earn, and Columbia’s lack of faith in his artistic vision wasn’t helping. At the time of the Palo Alto concert, his most recent album was Underground, which the label had tried to sell to the hippie crowd with a cover photo that portrayed Monk as a French liberation fighter hiding out in a Paris attic, where he could bang away at his keyboard and kick some Nazi ass in private. This did not work.
While they were admittedly disinterested in the electric soundscapes labelmate Miles Davis would begin exploring by year’s end, Monk’s quartet showed up to Paly ready to boogie. They run roughshod through “Well, You Needn’t,” a Monk composition from 1944 that was by then a standard of his sets. Though it was typically a vehicle for some of his most wobbly improvisations, here it’s played with the heavy hip-shaking shuffle of an early R&B song. The quartet takes it at a dead sprint, lapping the version they’d laid down a few years earlier on Misterioso. Monk pushes saxophonist Charlie Rouse throughout the latter’s solo, jabbing with two-note chords like he’s testing for Rouse’s most vulnerable spots; the tenor responds with a rippling line that he staples to the piano’s bumpy contours. When it’s time for Monk to take the spotlight, he dissolves the song’s theme and goes to work moving around its component parts, his fluid runs set against a supremely funky bassline from Larry Gales, who later upstages his boss with a bowed-bass solo that sketches circles around the hard core of Monk’s playing. By the time they pounce on “Blue Monk,” they’re practically splitting the difference between Fats Waller and Fats Domino. Not hip references for 1968, sure, but the thumping power of these songs suggests that the quartet was fully capable of matching the pulse and drive of the era’s heaviest groups without sacrificing the musical complexity around which Monk built his songs.
Even the quieter numbers demonstrate the physicality of Monk’s playing as much as its intricacy. The recording captures the persistent squeak of his chair as he navigates a subtly cubist rendition of the standard “Don’t Blame Me.” One of the school’s janitors recorded the concert, asking only that he be allowed to tune Monk’s piano in exchange, and his rudimentary recording captures incredible details: Gales cheerfully singing along to his own solo in “Well, You Needn’t,” Monk’s foot tapping out the beat in “Don’t Blame Me.” The tape gathered dust in the 50-plus years it spent in the private collection of Danny Scher, the Paly student who booked the concert despite being all of 16 years old, and the fidelity is understandably low.
Ruby, My Dear (Live at Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, CA 1968)
Crucially, the tape captures the response of a rapt crowd. Scher had promoted the concert heavily in East Palo Alto, a largely Black community located just across the Bayshore Freeway from tony Palo Alto. An unincorporated area with no means for self-governance, East Palo Alto was gutted when nearly half of its small businesses were razed to make way for the freeway in 1955, while land grabs by neighboring Menlo Park and Palo Alto itself robbed it of crucial property taxes. Still, the citizens of East Palo Alto resolutely pursued Black empowerment. The town played host to a national Black Power conference featuring Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver in September of 1968, and ads for Monk’s show at Paly hung near posters promoting an initiative to rename the town Nairobi (the vote would be held mere days after the concert, failing by a two-to-one margin). East Palo Altans were understandably suspicious when a white teenager came around promising an appearance by a titan of bebop. Many didn’t buy their tickets until they saw Monk and the band roll into the school’s parking lot in Scher’s brother’s car.
Monk was a supporter of the civil rights movement, and his biographer Robin D.G. Kelley suspects that he may have worried that simply playing benefits for CORE and SNCC wasn’t doing enough for the cause. In 1963, he told a French reporter that, while he viewed himself primarily as an American, that didn’t “prevent me from being aware of all the progress that still needs to be made,” adding, “I know my music can help bring people together, and that’s what is important.”
That afternoon in Palo Alto, Monk did precisely that. As Kelley writes in his definitive biography, “[Black] and white kids from both Palo Altos” showed up at the gig, and they made their voices heard. They cheer as the band winds its way into the ending of “Blue Monk” and the quartet launches into a set-closing “Epistrophy.”
“We used to talk about how the birds can do these extraordinary maneuvers where they’ll all change the formation, something that even airline pilots couldn’t do,” French horn player David Amram once recalled of his time with Monk, and in the final moments of the song, the band takes to the sky, weaving around one another in double-time staccato bursts, Ben Riley’s cymbals glowing like a California sunset. This is not the graceful latticework and tempo-shifting they displayed at the Jazz Workshop; it’s a strafing. When Monk finally sets the song down, the crowd whistles its delight. It seems unlikely that Monk and his quartet would have known about what was happening in East Palo Alto, but they’ve clearly been buoyed by the crowd’s youthful energy, and they deliver some of the fiercest, most spirited versions of their core repertoire in response.
The notion that a great concert can end racism—or affect any kind of meaningful social change—is a convenient myth. Monk’s concert at Palo Alto High School didn’t change the fortune of East Palo Alto any more definitively than the $500 changed Monk’s own financial situation. But by offering a temporary escape from their respective grinds, it gave the artist and his audience a chance to catch their breath, shake themselves free, and revel in the sound of one of jazz’s greatest-ever combos simply enjoying themselves. As the applause rains down following “I Love You (Sweetheart of All My Dreams),” Monk speaks for the first time all afternoon. “We got to hurry back to get to work,” he says. “You dig?” For him, it’s an explanation; for the crowd, it’s an exhortation.
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse, Butch Warren (bass), Frankie Dunlop (drums), live in Japan, May 23rd 1963.
Marty Sartini Garner is a freelance writer, music critic and record selector living in Los Angeles.