Sam Stephenson of the Jazz Loft Project at Duke University shepherded the Thelonious Monk Town Hall 50th anniversary concerts at the end of February. See this post for a link to a review of the events. Mr. Stephenson sent a few post-concert anecdotes for our amusement. The Rifftides staff found them interesting and asked him to expand them for publication. We thank him for permission to bring them to you.
At the 1959 Town Hall show the great writer Martin Williams went onstage and talked about Monk’s music for 20 or 30 minutes before the music, as if justification was needed to bring Monk’s music from the downtown Five Spot to the uptown Town Hall. Then, Monk brought out his quartet and they played four tunes. Then, finally the tentet came out and played the music you can now hear on the Riverside CD.
What we did instead, with Tolliver’s show, was build a sequence that gave the audience, we hoped, a sense of the architecture of Monk’s music. Stanley Cowell came out first and played a magnificent version of In Walked Bud on solo piano. Then he was joined by Rufus Reid on bass and Gene Jackson on drums and they played a swinging Blue Monk. The third tune, Rhythm-a-ning, was played by quartet with Marcus Strickland on tenor. Then Tolliver came out with the rest of the band. During rehearsals it was clear that Tolliver’s hand was firmly in control of the first three tunes, even though he wasn’t onstage for the performances. There was something distinct he wanted out of each tune to build toward the tentet.
Most serious listeners liked both shows. Some preferred one or the other, and a few said they couldn’t stand Moran’s show, but some advocates of Moran’s show were the most passionate of all who have weighed in. I guess that’s normal for adventurous new music. We’ve received a ton of amateur feedback, some of it outlandish. One man in New Canaan, CT emailed the general address for Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I work, and complained that in the age of Obama and racial healing there should have been some white people in Moran’s band. We were speechless. He also said Moran’s music had nothing to do with Monk and everything to do with individual virtuosity. We’re speechless at that, too.
The only tune played either night that wasn’t played in the original Town Hall concert (both Tolliver and Moran played the same tunes in order) was the gospel tune “Blessed Assurance” (aka “This is My Story, This is My Song”) which Moran’s tuba player, trumpeter, and trombone player performed as a funeral dirge fadeout as the whole band walked offstage in the middle of the show. A man sitting behind my wife was apoplectic, stammering to everyone within earshot, “This isn’t Monk. Monk would never have played a tune like this. This is outrageous.” The man obviously hadn’t heard Monk’s Columbia album Straight No Chaser (the original recording, not the movie soundtrack) in which Monk played exactly that tune in much the same rhythm and phrasing that Moran had the brass trio play it to conclude a sequence that included a Rwandan drum sample in a Nasheet Waits drum solo. The sequence also had film footage shot in fields near the Monk ancestral home – the plantation of Archibald Monk, near Monk’s Crossroads – in Newton Grove, N.C. where a number of Monk’s relatives still live today. I thought it was extremely unique and powerful.
The night before during Tolliver’s show there was another man who was hysterical that Tolliver didn’t talk to the audience in between tunes, didn’t tell the names of the tunes (they were listed in the concert program) nor identify his soloists (all were identified in the program, too). I was told the man was seething with anger even while the band got a tremendous standing ovation after playing Little Rootie Tootie the first time and again after they played it a second time as an encore like Monk did.
One of the most heartening aspects of the project was to have around thirty Monk family members in attendance, and to have trombonist Eddie Bert and French horn player Bob Northern (aka Brother Ah) from Monk’s original band. Eddie was backstage before Tolliver’s show and I heard Tolliver’s trombone player Jason Jackson ask him, “You got any tips for me?” With a look of awe and bewilderment, Eddie said, “No, I don’t. All I know is, we rehearsed for a month.” Jackson played Eddie’s signature parts on “Monk’s Mood” beautifully.
I met a number of Monk’s cousins after the Moran show, including Pam Monk Kelley and Edith Monk Pue. Pam, an educator who has done extensive research on the family tree, asked me if I could attend their family reunion this summer. Her question made me feel better than just about anything that happened all week. It’s been a fascinating experience for me and I feel very privileged to have been able to be involved.