Monk At Town Hall: Five Decades Of Jazz Lore

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Thelonious Monk 300 i i

Fifty years ago, Thelonious Monk's legendary concert at Town Hall has become the stuff of legend. courtesy of the heirs of W. Eugene Smith and Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the heirs of W. Eugene Smith and Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona
Thelonious Monk 300

Fifty years ago, Thelonious Monk's legendary concert at Town Hall has become the stuff of legend.

courtesy of the heirs of W. Eugene Smith and Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona

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Hear the 50th-anniversary Monk at Town Hall concert, performed by the Charles Tolliver Tentet:

Hear NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library entry on Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall:

Fifty years ago Saturday night, jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk stepped onto the stage of New York's Town Hall theater with nine other musicians to perform new arrangements of some of his best-known tunes. It was Monk's first time as a headliner in a concert hall, and it was an event in the jazz world.

The concert has become the stuff of jazz lore. This week, two groups of younger players took the same stage for tribute concerts.

Monk had been playing mostly in small ensembles at New York's jazz clubs in the Village and on 52nd Street. That's why the prospect of a Town Hall event was so remarkable, says Orrin Keepnews, who produced the concert recording.

"You go back to that period, and just that whole thing of putting together a 10-piece band for a live performance by Monk was about as far-out of an idea as you could come up with," Keepnews says.

A First-Class Band

Monk teamed up with Juilliard-trained pianist and composer Hall Overton, who'd also worked with saxophonist Stan Getz. Together, the two put together a first-class band.

"We were all excited, because it was different music," says trombonist Eddie Bert, who played with Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and others. "You have your head set for Monk. I mean, he plays different than anybody, so we had to adapt."

The Monk tentet included Robert Northern — now known as Brother Ah — on French horn.

"And the instrumentation," Northern says. "I asked Hall Overton, 'What's the instrumentation?' And he told me tuba. And I said, 'What? Definitely, I want to be a part of this.'"

Overton and Monk met every day in Overton's 6th Avenue loft, sitting at two upright pianos, figuring out the orchestrations.

Rolling Tape

We can hear them now because photographer W. Eugene Smith, Overton's neighbor, had his tape recorders running throughout the rehearsals. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University has been researching and digitizing the Smith collection.

The tapes reveal Overton and Monk spending long sessions getting the music written. They picked six Monk tunes to transcribe for the 10 musicians.

Northern says he overheard a mutual respect and admiration between the two men.

"When something wasn't quite working the way Monk wanted," Northern says, "I mean, the love and concern that Overton had to get it right was just beautiful to watch."

Eddie Bert and the other musicians went to work once Monk and Overton had settled on the charts. They climbed the rickety stairs to Overton's loft in the wee hours of the morning, after they'd played their respective club dates.

Northern recalls that they often didn't start until 3 a.m.

"Nobody even looked around," Northern says. "It was magical; the aura was just magical. We couldn't wait to get to rehearsal. Nobody was sleepy, nobody was tired. We greeted each other as just loving brothers and 'Let's get to work.' "

Spreading The Word

In the late afternoon of Feb. 28, 1959 — after two weeks of rehearsals — the musicians left the loft and headed uptown to Town Hall. Word had started to get around.

"Everybody was curious," Northern says. "Nobody could imagine what this was gonna sound like. Many, many musicians from far and wide came to this concert."

"We get to Town Hall to play the concert, and it was magic time," says Phil Woods, who played alto saxophone in the group. "All of a sudden, everything was clear. That band played so well that night. We played the heck out of that music, you know."

"It was amazing," Northern adds. "I get goose pimples talking about it, because I had never experienced that. ... It was energizing."

For 10 musicians and a concert-hall audience, it was magic time, indeed.

Audio in this piece was provided by The Jazz Loft Radio Project. For more information, visit jazzloftproject.org.

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