Why Palo Alto is one of the best Thelonious Monk recordings ever heard

In October of 1968, 16-year-old student Danny Scher invited Thelonious Monk to play at his high school in Palo Alto, Calif.

Monk, who was then at the pinnacle of his musical career, accepted the invitation. Unbeknownst to him, the school’s custodian recorded it. That tape then sat in the attic of Scher’s family home for half a century until he got in touch with Monk’s son, T.S. Monk — the musician, composer, and founder of the Thelonious Monk Institute — to make plans to release it.

Titled Palo Alto, the recording was finally released by Impulse Records this year. T.S. Monk calls it “one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard by Thelonious.” He recently joined us for an interview to tell us more about this incredible, newly unearthed recording.

Recommended Links

In 1968, what was going on in that particular time in your dad’s career?

He was still riding the crest of the wave created by his gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1964. That particular band with Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley, they were working down in Berkeley, and they were firing on all cylinders. I think he was feeling very good. My father was a real family man, so we spent a lot of time together — enough time to know when he was feeling good, and when he was feeling great. Given the unique nature of Thelonious Monk, no matter how he was feeling it was always going to be a unique listening experience for anyone. But there were definitely times when I felt like he was just playing, and there were times when I said, “Oh man, he’s really feeling good.”

The world didn’t discover Thelonious until he was on the cover of Time magazine, so there was a good 25 years of Thelonious Monk that was primarily a live artist. He had a very scattered recording career, unlike a Miles Davis who basically spent his career with Columbia, or John Coltrane who spent his career at Impulse. Thelonious was originally on Blue Note and then he was off Blue Note, then he was on Prestige and then he was off Prestige, then he was on Riverside and then he was off Riverside, then he was on Columbia and then he was off Columbia. Thelonious was really a live artist. He didn’t rely on his recordings to either feed him or to enhance his notoriety. It was about live. When you talk to people, older folks, they will always tell you, “Oh man, the record’s great, man. But I saw Monk live at the Vanguard.” They always say you had to hear Monk live to really understand the magnitude of his impact on the musicians around him and on Western music in general. [Palo Alto] is a live recording that Thelonious did not know was being made, and so he was just really being himself. I think the fact that he had been hired by this 16-year-old kid and brought to a town that was going through a lot of racial tumult at the time — and in fact the whole country was ablaze with racial tumult — I think he really wanted to put his best foot forward. And he really, really did.

Being familiar with most of his recordings, this is one of the best recordings of Thelonious Monk in his entire career. The young man Danny Scher caught him on an exceptionally good day, and all of those elements that the world loves about Thelonious Monk are present in this recording — his ability to work with time and shift and displace various phrases, the swing that all of his bands always had, the unique harmonics and melodic figures that he played… it’s just all there. It’s pure Monk, and it’s wonderful. I’m delighted that we found this recording, and that I was able to restore it so that it sounds, frankly, like it was recorded last week. This is a two-track mono recording from 52 years ago and it doesn’t sound like that at all.

How does it find its way to you and see the light of day?

Probably as a result of the success of the Thelonious Monk Institute and its visibility. Danny was clearing out a closet or a garage or an attic one day, and he saw this recording. Since I was highly visible, he picked up the phone and said hey, I’ve got this recording of your father. I had so much going on at the time … that I didn’t really give him the kind of time I should’ve. He didn’t have a chance to really explain the backstory to this recording. I listened to it, and I thought it was good, but I was busy. There might have been a four- or five-year gap. He called me a second time, and my life was a little more settled. He started telling me the backstory, and then I really listened to the recording, and I said, “Oh, you know what? This is really, really serious.” It’s just a wonderful American story of this young white kid caught up in all the tumultuous times of 1968 with all the racial distress, particularly in places like Palo Alto. At that time, East Palo Alto, which was the African-American side of the town, actually had a campaign going on to rename it Nairobi. That’s how angry they were at that side of town. Danny explained to me that the first time he had ever seen African-Americans and white Americans together, just enjoying themselves, was at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was an epiphany for him, because he thought… Oh, we actually do get along. He wanted to bring that to Palo Alto.

I heard that when he was postering for the gig, there were police officers who were tearing those posters down because there was so much tension between the two communities at that point.

Yes, not only tearing posters down but telling him that he should get out of town because something not so nice may happen to him. Of course, he didn’t listen to them. He continued putting up his posters, nothing happened to him, and it was a historic day. He had to convince people… No one believed that Thelonious Monk was coming to Palo Alto.

The show wasn’t selling because people didn’t believe he would be there.

People didn’t believe he would be there. You’ve got this little white kid who claims this Black guy is coming here, and everything is crazy. He and the police department made a deal with the population, basically telling them listen, come to the schoolyard, and if Monk doesn’t show up, it doesn’t happen. If he does, buy your tickets and go in. And of course, he ended up with a full house because Thelonious showed up with a bass sticking out the window of the car.

I think that Thelonious was probably a little surprised at the reception he got, both outside and inside the auditorium. The crowd, as you can hear on the recording, is extraordinarily enthusiastic. He just let it all hang out. If you love Thelonious Monk, you must have this recording. It’s just Monk in full bloom. I hadn’t heard him actually play this way that often.

Of course, I wasn’t born until ’49 and didn’t even become aware of who my father was until ’59. I just grew up with the music. Daddy plays the piano and he’s got all these bizarre friends who come to the house all the time. Sonny Rollins with a mohawk hair-do. Miles Davis, a very, very quiet guy, unlike the Miles Davis everyone knows. And he’s yelling at this young guy all day and night, and he only calls him Coltrane, he never says his name is John. I grew up in this bizarre world, but that was normal for me. So, I didn’t get a chance to hear this unbridled Monk that had made such historic strides in the late ’30s, in the ’40s and in the early ’50s. This recording was as much of a surprise for me as it is for any Monk fan. And I’m a Monk fan, since I’m a musician myself. I see my father as daddy. I never called him Thelonious one time in the 33 years I had him. But I also now see him as Thelonious Monk. So, I feel very, very privileged, quite frankly, to even have been born to this guy and my mom. We have no control over who our parents are. I look at it as ridiculous luck.

When I was five, six, seven years old, people used to say to me, “Hey man, you know what, 50 years from now your father is going to be bigger than he is now.” When you’re [that age], 50 years sounds like 500 years. But here I am 60 years later, and he is in fact 10 times bigger than he ever was in his lifetime. Those people were not lying to me. People say that about artists on a regular basis. Very few achieve that kind of success, but Thelonious is one of them. He’s one for the ages now. And in this recording, you really see why.

I do lots of clinics, and I often tell young artists who are not that familiar with Thelonious, I say if you want to understand how different Monk is from the rest of the pack, then go get yourself the three biggest-selling records by piano players of the year 1954, and then get Thelonious Monk’s records in 1954. Listen to how similar those other pianists sound to each other, and how different Monk sounds from all of them. This is some magic stuff, man, to be associated with this guy in any way.

What he did harmonically in particular, he changed the face of Western music. I tell kids all the time: no Monk, no funk. That’s very, very real. A lot of the chord progressions and harmonic clusters that Thelonious brought to the table were considered wrong. Oh, he’s playing the wrong notes. Oh, that chord doesn’t go with that chord. All those ideas he brought to the music from jazz, they’ve filtered down everywhere — to country, to gospel, to R&B, to hip-hop. Everywhere. There are very few artists who have had that kind of impact on Western music.

You had mentioned that he didn’t know the show was being recorded. It was a janitor who brokered a deal to tune the piano to then go ahead and record it — I’m guessing without your father’s okay, correct?

Yeah, the janitor. Amazing. Everything about this recording is amazing. [Even] Thelonious showing up, because he was already working down in Berkeley. In fact, one of the most wonderful parts of the recording is at the very end. After the applause, Thelonious says to the audience, “You’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got another gig, ya dig?” The way he says it, when I listen to that, I think God, that is daddy. That is daddy talking. I heard him say things like that a million times. It’s a fitting ending to a wonderful [recording].

This interview has been edited and condensed.