PALO ALTO – When Thelonious Monk Went Back To School
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in late October 1968, the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, then 51, played one of the most unusual concerts of his career: at a high school in Palo Alto, a city in the San Francisco Bay area. In those days, it was uncommon for jazz musicians to perform outside of a nightclub setting – although some of the genre’s bigger names occasionally played in concert venues like Carnegie Hall – so having Thelonious Monk and his band appear on the bill of a daytime school event was a unique and wholly remarkable occurrence. The reason for Monk’s appearance in the city that is home to Stanford University was down to a young jazz enthusiast who fancied himself as a budding concert promoter: 16-year-old Danny Scher, who wanted to bring one of his musical heroes to his high school.
Though the concert was undoubtedly one of the most notable things to happen at “Paly” High (as locals dubbed their school), its story is largely unknown to people outside of the Palo Alto area, although Monk’s biographer, Robin D. G. Kelley, devoted a full page describing it in his acclaimed 2011 tome, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original. Now, though, 52 years after the fact, the concert has been brought vividly back to life thanks to the release of an unauthorised reel-to-reel recording that the high school janitor made and gave to Danny Scher, capturing Monk and his quartet for posterity. The tape, unheard for over half-a-century, has been restored and has just been released on CD and LP by Impulse! Records and is also available in a digital format via Sony Legacy. In an exclusive interview with SJF, former promoter Danny Scher, now 68, tells the amazing story behind Thelonious Monk’s Palo Alto concert.
Amazingly, Thelonious Monk wasn’t the first jazz concert that aspiring drummer Danny Scher had organised at his high school. The jazz-obsessed schoolboy had already put on two previous concerts at PALY high when he was only 15: a double bill with pianist Vince Guaraldi and singer Jon Hendricks and a second show featuring west coast vibraphone legend, Cal Tjader. Both were successful and brought Scher into the orbit of local concert promoter, Darlene Chan, who did publicity for the Berkeley Jazz Festival. “I contacted her and asked if I could help with her concerts,” Scher remembers. “She sent me posters to put up for her and in exchange for that I got free tickets for shows.”
As a fledgling promoter, Scher’s dream was to bring his two idols, Monk and Duke Ellington, to Palo Alto. He disclosed his aspirations to Chan and she gave him much more than encouragement: she provided him with the phone number of Monk’s manager, Jules Colomby. “Monk was doing a multi-week run at a jazz club in San Francisco called The Jazz Workshop,” remembers Scher. “I called his manager and said I’d like to put on Thelonious Monk at my high school. He said, ‘well, you’ve got to pay me $500.’ I said okay, and he sent me the contracts with publicity pictures and promo records.”
Scher had to get the school principal to sign the contracts, who didn’t object as the concert was set up as a benefit gig with the profits being donated to school projects in Kenya and Peru. The signed contracts were sent back to Colomby while Scher proceeded to publicise the concert. He got some posters printed and then put them up in local stores, ranging from florists to music shops and booksellers. He placed ads in the local newspaper he delivered every morning and also put together a concert programme that allowed Palo Alto businesses to advertise in it. “Even if no one showed up, even if I sold very few tickets, the advertising in the programme meant we’d have enough money to pay Monk,” reveals Scher. “That was really my goal. I wanted to make sure that the show broke even.”
Despite his zeal to promote the show, ticket sales were painfully slow – worryingly so. But perhaps that wasn’t surprising given that Thelonious Monk’s music was an acquired taste and even considered avant-garde by some. And although Monk had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was signed to the major label Columbia Records, he wasn’t a household name. Even so, Danny Scher was surprised that the tickets weren’t selling. “I was either delusional or in denial,” he laughs, “but I didn’t let the ‘in denial’ part stop me from doing what I had to do as a concert promoter to sell my show.”
That’s when Scher decided to venture into East Palo Alto, a deprived area of the city where most of its black population lived. At the time, America – much like today in the Black Lives Matter era – was riven by racial division and inequity. It was a turbulent time, as Scher remembers. “Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been shot and there was tension in our government and our society, just like there is today only now it’s much worse I think.”
East Palo Alto, which was deemed a no-go area to the city’s white citizens, was in the process of holding a public vote on changing its name; such was its disenchantment with the way the rest of Palo Alto regarded it. “It had an identity crisis and wanted to change the name of the city from East Palo Alto to Nairobi,” reveals Scher. “So there were posters all over East Palo Alto saying ‘vote yes on Nairobi,’ … and there I was, putting up my Thelonious Monk concert posters right next to those.”
Scher was spotted by local law enforcement officers, who tried to dissuade him and send him back to the white side of town. Says Scher: “The police came up to me saying, ‘hey, you’re a white kid, this really isn’t safe for you.’ But I wasn’t thinking like a white kid, I was thinking like a promoter who had a show to put on and tickets to sell.”
Undaunted, Scher quietly continued putting up his posters but his presence intrigued the locals whose fascination grew when they saw his posters. “People from East Palo Alto came up to me and said they didn’t believe that Thelonious Monk was going to play at the high school, which was almost exclusively white, by the way,” says Scher. “They were sceptical, so I told them, if you don’t believe Monk is coming, then don’t buy a ticket – but come to the high school parking lot, and when you see him, buy one.”
As the concert grew nearer, Scher hadn’t heard anything from Monk’s manager and thought he should contact him to confirm arrangements. His phone call got through to the pianist himself who told the teenager he knew nothing about playing in Palo Alto and to make matters worse, Monk said he already had a gig that same day – an evening engagement at a jazz club in San Francisco, 30 miles away from Palo Alto. But when Scher explained it was an afternoon gig and his brother could transport his group to and from Palo Alto, Monk agreed to honour the agreement his manager had set up. “He said okay, so my brother went and picked him up,” recalled Scher. “When my brother drove up to the high school in my parents’ station wagon, I remember the bass was sticking out of the window.”
By then, several hundred people were congregating in the high school parking lot, and when Monk arrived, tickets – priced at just $2 – immediately began selling quickly. Monk’s quartet – featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Eddie Gales and drummer Ben Riley – were the headline act, following in the wake of two local support acts. “It was a package show with three acts,” recalls Scher. “There were Smoke and the Jimmy Marks Afro-Ensemble. Those bands were Stanford students and had a local following.”
But it was Thelonious Monk who was the main event and the high school auditorium was packed with an integrated audience of 350 people; a rarity in a segregated city. “It was totally mixed,” states Scher, “and there wasn’t a single problem. It showed that music – like sports – can bring us together.”
Monk and his quartet performed for 47 minutes and their six-song set contained dynamic versions of four of the composer’s most iconic tunes; ‘Well, You Needn’t,’ ‘Ruby, My Dear,’ ‘Epistrophy’ and a very sprightly rendering of ‘Blue Monk.’ “Everything was a little faster and the solos were longer than usual,” says Danny Scher, reflecting on Monk’s performance. “It actually brought me chills because the energy was so high.” Scher also recalled with pleasure watching a happy Monk dance around his piano during his band member’s solos.
Explaining how the concert came to be recorded, Scher says a school janitor – whose name he doesn’t recall – approached him with a proposition. “A couple of days before the show, he came to me and said, ‘if I have the piano tuned, can I record the concert?’ I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to record a concert and I hardly knew that a piano needed to be tuned, but I said sure to both.”
After the concert, the janitor handed Scher a 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape, which then spent 52 years in a box gathering dust in his attic. “I never really thought that I would do anything with the tape,” discloses Scher. “I think I probably listened to the tape once and then I just put it away. I hadn’t heard it for decades until very recently.”
Scher reveals that around 15 years ago he was afraid that the tape would deteriorate so got it professionally digitised and copied on to CD. Through his friendship with the late jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Heath, he was able to bring it to the attention of Thelonious Monk’s son and former drummer, T. S. Monk. “I played him the CD and he knew right away that his father was feeling good,” says Scher. “He could tell. Monk also signed a programme to me and when I showed it to T. S., he said ‘this was how my father signed his name when he was really feeling good.’”
Despite his enthusiasm for his father’s Palo Alto recording, T. S. Monk had other interests at the time that prevented him from getting actively involved in readying the music for an official release. But that changed in 2017 when, on what was his father’s 100th birthday, he signed a deal with Scher to release the music publicly via the Monk estate’s Rhythm-A-Ning Entertainment company. Three years later, and after some meticulous audio restoration from T. S. Monk and his associate Grand Mixer DXT, ‘Palo Alto’ is now available for all to hear via a collaboration between Rhythm-A-Ning Entertainment with the Impulse! and Sony Legacy labels.
Danny Scher (pictured left) is particularly proud of his part in Thelonious Monk’s ‘Palo Alto’ story and says that the experience of organising it – along with a Duke Ellington gig he put on (and also recorded) six months later – was instrumental in him becoming a concert promoter after he left college; he worked alongside the legendary west-coast rock promoter Bill Graham for 24 years, between 1975 and 1999. “I owe it all to Bill Graham,” says Scher. “I’ve worked hard my whole life doing what I love doing and it paid the bills. My parents joked that there was no money being in music but it worked out okay for me. If you do what you’re passionate about and do it well then you’ll pay the bills.”
Reflecting on his Thelonious Monk experience back in 1968, Scher reveals that a few days after the concert, East Palo Alto voted against changing its name to Nairobi in its referendum but he doesn’t believe the concert had any bearing on the decision. “I don’t think Monk had anything to do with it really because there were only 350 people at the concert,” he says. “But I think there was a time-out between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto during the concert that showed that music can bring us together. I like to think that on that afternoon 52 years ago, everyone became colour-blind.”
Thelonious Monk’s ‘Palo Alto’ is out now via Rhythm-A-Ning Entertainment in association with Impulse! Records and Sony Legacy.
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