In 1968, a Teenager Convinced Thelonious Monk to Play a Gig at His High School to Promote Racial Unity; Now the Concert Recording Is Getting Released

In 1964, Thelo­nious Monk appeared on the cov­er of TIME. He had been cho­sen for an exten­sive pro­file, his biog­ra­ph­er Robin D.G. Kel­ley tells Ter­ry Gross, because the mag­a­zine thought Miles Davis or Ray Charles might be “too con­tro­ver­sial.” Monk, it was thought “had no com­plaints… he was­n’t so polit­i­cal.” This is not exact­ly so, Kel­ley writes in Thelo­nious Monk: The Life and Times of an Amer­i­can Orig­i­nal. The eccen­tric genius played ben­e­fit con­certs through­out the 60s. But he was also begin­ning to suf­fer from men­tal health issues that remained undi­ag­nosed to the end of his life. Still, he fol­lowed Civ­il Rights strug­gles close­ly. “Thelo­nious was moved by these events” and won­dered what more he could do.

That year Monk had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a direct con­tri­bu­tion by play­ing the most­ly white Palo Alto High School after the most “racial­ly tense” sum­mer of the decade, a moment in his­to­ry eeri­ly like the cur­rent time. The show was orga­nized by enter­pris­ing 16-year-old junior Dan­ny Sch­er, who would go on to become a major con­cert pro­mot­er.

Through his local con­nec­tions, Sch­er con­tact­ed Monk’s man­ag­er and arranged the book­ing. In order to fill the audi­to­ri­um, he pro­mot­ed the show in his wealthy Palo Alto enclave, in the local news­pa­pers, and in large­ly seg­re­gat­ed East Palo Alto. (“Against the urg­ing of the police depart­ment,” notes Jazz­iz.) Scher’s hard work turned the event into a rous­ing suc­cess, Kel­ley writes:

Nei­ther Thelo­nious nor six­teen-year-old Dan­ny Sch­er ful­ly grasped what this con­cert meant for race rela­tions in the area. For one beau­ti­ful after­noon, blacks and whites, P.A. and East P.A., buried the hatch­et and gath­ered togeth­er to hear “Blue Monk,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Don’t Blame Me.”

Monk played for over an hour to the inte­grat­ed audi­ence, then played an encore after “thun­der­ous applause.” The sto­ry of how the con­cert came about is full of plot twists, includ­ing the fact that Monk nev­er actu­al­ly saw the con­tract and only found out about the gig when Sch­er called him a few days before. But he “dug the kid’s chutz­pah and agreed to do it.” While Sch­er may have had the pres­ence of mind to fol­low up before the gig, he didn’t think to doc­u­ment the moment. That fell to a Black cus­to­di­an at the high school (whose name has been unfor­tu­nate­ly lost) who approached Sch­er, Nate Chi­nen tells NPR, and offered to tune the piano if he could record the gig.

The cus­to­di­an gave the tapes to Sch­er and the pro­mot­er held on to them for over 50 years. Now they’re final­ly being released as Palo Alto by Impulse! Records on July 31st. You can pre­view the new release with “Epistro­phy,” at the top. This record is no minor rar­i­ty, accord­ing to Monk’s son, T.S. Monk, who calls it “one of the best live record­ings I’ve ever heard by Thelo­nious.” Maybe he was ener­gized by the urgency of the moment, maybe it was the ener­gy of the audi­ence that drove his per­for­mance. What­ev­er inspired him that day, Monk showed, as many jazz musi­cians did at the time, how art can suc­ceed where pol­i­tics fail, and can—at least temporarily—unite com­mu­ni­ties who might have come to believe they have noth­ing left in com­mon.

via NPR

 Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Music Unites Us All: Her­bie Han­cock & Kamasi Wash­ing­ton in Con­ver­sa­tion

How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civ­il Rights Move­ment

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Thelo­nious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musi­cians (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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