Palo Alto: That Time When Thelonious Monk Played a High School

The unearthed recording of Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet oozes with bootleg charm

Music Reviews Thelonious Monk
Palo Alto: That Time When Thelonious Monk Played a High School

Located in present-day Silicon Valley, the Bay Area city of Palo Alto was a most unlikely place to catch a Sunday-matinee performance by Thelonious Monk back in 1968. By that time, Monk’s jazz-giant stature had been firmly established, so it was a major coup that a plucky teenager named Danny Scher was able to snag Monk’s quartet for an appearance at his local high school. Palo Alto is the document of that performance, which is finally seeing the light of day after Scher, who’d forgotten that the school custodian recorded the show, found the tape in his attic some 15 years ago. At that point, he contacted Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, who was surprised to discover that his father had even played a high school at any point in his much-heralded career.

The story behind Palo Alto, which could easily fill this review, oozes with charm and social context, both beautifully captured in liner notes that are worth the price of admission alone, even if you’ve watched the promotional mini-documentary released by the label. In that same promo clip, T.S. Monk surmises that his father’s quartet was so well-oiled by 1968 that “they could [have] set up in a phone booth and sound like the records.” Well, Palo Alto doesn’t quite sound like it was recorded in a phone booth—it would be worth hearing even if it had been—but listeners should know ahead of time that the fidelity level here falls into bootleg range.

Which is not to say that you can’t hear every instrument clearly. On the contrary—many, many acoustic nuances shine through: the greasy resonance as bassist Larry Gales scrapes his strings with a bow during his solo on a 13-minute version of “Well, You Needn’t” (with Monk himself humming along), the variety of timbres and colors as drummer Ben Riley’s toms pop and cymbals hiss, etc. Riley’s drums in particular swell to loud enough volume that they stress the microphones, which creates the illusion that the listener is seated near the drumset and, thus, up close and personal with the musicians onstage.

That said, the recording has a dry, boxed-in character that, for better or worse, defines the listening experience. In strictly psychoacoustic terms, the band feels disembodied from the audience, from the room, and from itself. For one, the quartet itself is literally split up, with Riley and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse hard-panned to one side of the stereo field and Monk panned to the other along with Gales. Meanwhile, the audience’s loud but muffled applause never integrates with the music, much in the same way we’d compare to a modern-era soundboard recording. So it’s difficult to get any sense of room ambience, and, as a result, it’s also difficult to connect with the band’s energy.

Then again, we’re talking about some of the most elegant musical compositions ever written here, and there is a certain appeal to hearing them this way. When you listen to Palo Alto, you can almost imagine that you went up to the attic yourself and found it in a box with some of your other belongings. You can hear Monk’s piano bench creaking on his unaccompanied rendition of the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields standard “Don’t Blame Me,” but the added sound actually stays in time with his playing. When he introduces the piece with chords, the emotion and spirit both come across unimpeded, as does his unique ability to combine solemn tones with whimsy. And no recording limitations could have dulled the sparkle when he punctuates those chords with rapidly descending right-hand runs.

The tune concludes with an arpeggiated line over a high-pitched two-note trill, as if Monk could transport himself—and the audience—from a rickety western saloon to the most majestic classical concert hall in the blink of an eye. It is impossible to overstate what a towering figure Monk has become since Palo Alto was recorded. The myriad technical elements, along with the intangible qualities that separated his playing from anyone else the world has ever known, have been documented and discussed voluminously. But listening to the waning seconds of “Don’t Blame Me” here, we get a glimpse—however fleeting—into the innate appeal of Monk’s playing, which in the end requires little formal awareness of jazz to understand on a gut level.

Not to be overlooked is Rouse, whose butter-like tone and intuitive approach to melody, it could be argued, were as indispensable to Monk’s music as Monk was himself. By this point, the pair had been playing together for a decade, and the effortlessness of their connection shows on Palo Alto—so much so, in fact, that it might take a few listens to appreciate the symbiotic way Rouse and Monk play off each other, trading off, push-pulling, overlapping and harmonizing like two powerful lead singers in the same group. Unfortunately, Rouse’s tone gets constrained somewhat by the lack of natural room reverb. Overall, though, Palo Alto breathes more than the much longer Live at the It Club, which documents the same quartet two years earlier.

The timing of the Palo Alto High concert is crucial in two respects: 1968 was the year that Monk, Rouse, Gales and Riley released their final album together; it was also the peak year of social tumult the likes of which this country hadn’t seen since the previous century. And it took a certain combination of audacity, idealism and moxie for a kid from a “lily-white” community to shrug-off segregation and bank on African American jazz fans from nearby East Palo Alto to attend. They did, and the show ended up being well-attended despite slow ticket sales right up until the day of the show. According to Scher, a skeptical crowd gathered outside the venue early in the afternoon just to see if the band was really going to show up for its matinee engagement. Their doubts were quelled when they saw Scher’s older brother’s van pull up with the neck of Gales’ bass sticking out the window (No surprise that Scher would go on to work for legendary concert promoter Bill Graham.)

While the idea of music healing racial divisions can all too often fall flat as saccharine, convenient and even problematic in its own right, it’s important to remember that jazz actually did bring listeners together on an unprecedented scale. Listening to Palo Alto now, it’s striking how the jazz musicians of the era were able to maintain such poise in a social setting that was even more overtly and unapologetically discriminatory than ours is today. Does listening to Palo Alto offer any clues as to how we might navigate a moment in history that’s proving to be just as volatile, if not more so, than the year the album was recorded? That is, perhaps, better left to the listener to decide.

At the end of the day, Palo Alto’s biggest triumph might just lie in the dust that’s settled over the memory of the concert itself: Sweep away the cobwebs and what you hear is a band that was undeniably alive.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. You can find him on Twitter.

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