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Unexpected Thelonious Monk

The culture of jazz music, both for the musicians and its audience, has always prized individuality—perhaps paradoxically within an aural tradition like jazz, where the music is learned by listening and imitating those who have preceded you. Yet no higher compliment could be paid to a jazz musician than to be recognized for distinctiveness of sound and conception. Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) embodied this fierce individuality, possessing the kind of unshakeable belief in his music that allowed him to persevere through years of neglect in the 1940s and ’50s, his angular, spiky musical style misunderstood and rejected by critics, yet hugely influential among a generation of jazz musicians who, at least for a time, achieved greater acclaim. Most of those other musicians—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others—were the first to acknowledge Monk’s innovations, even though they often received credit for many of them, whether musical or sartorial, right down to the classic bebopper outfit of goatee, beret, and horn-rimmed glasses.

Things had begun to look up for Monk by his first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1955. By his sixth in 1964, the rest of the world had noticed him enough to put him on the cover of TIME magazine.

Monk very rarely played, or even appeared, in public during the last decade of his life, but Carnegie Hall was fortunate to be the venue for three appearances—although until very recently, only two were known to Carnegie Hall’s archivists: a March 1976 concert with his quintet and a double-bill with Dizzy Gillespie three months later, which proved to be the final concert appearance of Monk’s life. Monk wasn’t on the bill for the third event, a tribute to his music by the New York Jazz Repertory Company on April 6, 1974—in fact, he wasn’t even expected to attend the concert. According to the great impresario George Wein (who had not only organized the concert, but also established the sadly short-lived jazz repertory group earlier that year), pianist Barry Harris, who was booked to perform on the concert, called Monk to inform him of the event and ask him to play. Nobody really expected Monk show up, but he did; just as the band was getting ready to start, he surprised everyone by walking out on stage, sitting down, and playing the entire concert. Of course, he didn’t know the arrangements and hadn’t rehearsed a single minute with the group, but it hardly mattered. In his recent biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, author Robin D. G. Kelley described the entire evening as “electric.” On drums that night was Monk’s son, T. S. (“Toot”), who said it was “absolutely magical.” Critic Martin Williams went so far as to call it “one of the great moments in American music of my lifetime.”

It is always with a touch of chagrin that such “discoveries” are made so long after the fact. Forty years later, a concert program with no mention of Monk’s presence—and its context within the overwhelming body of 50,000 Carnegie Hall events (each with its own story) needing to be cataloged—helps to explain how such a beautiful needle can remain hidden in the haystack.

Archivists love nothing more than a good mystery, and once on the trail, other clues inevitably pop up. In 2005, for example, a spectacular recording was discovered by a specialist at the Library of Congress, documenting a November 1957 Carnegie Hall performance that featured a legendary collaboration between Monk and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Like many events at the Hall, the 1957 concert had been recorded by Voice of America for overseas broadcast and had remained tucked away for years, one of more than 50,000 recordings in the library’s VOA collection.

That discovery was much on the minds of Carnegie Hall’s archivists while on the trail for more information about the April 6, 1974, Monk tribute concert. Needless to say, hearts raced when a tiny notation was discovered in the Carnegie Hall booking ledger for that date: “USIA.” USIA is the United States Information Agency, the parent organization for Voice of America. A call was immediately placed to the reference archivists at the LOC Recorded Sound Section: Might they happen to have a recording of the 1974 concert? Sadly, none of the records in their database pointed to the Carnegie Hall event. Still, considering that the 1957 Monk/Coltrane recordings remained undiscovered for nearly 50 years, their true nature obscured by the meager and cryptic notations of the recording engineer on the tape box, hope springs eternal.

Header Photograph of Monk at Carnegie Hall: Peter Cunningham