SCOTT SIMON, host:

Fifty years ago tonight, Thelonious Monk stepped out on the stage of New York's Town Hall Theater with nine other musicians to perform new arrangements of some of his best-known songs. It was Mr. Monk's first time as a headliner in a concert hall, and it was an event in the jazz world. Since then, that concert has been the subject of much jazz lore, and this week two groups of younger players took the same stage for tribute concerts. From member station WNYC, Sarah Fishko takes us back five decades for a peek backstage.

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

Mr. ORRIN KEEPNEWS (Record Producer): You know, 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 an idea as you could come up with.

FISHKO: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EDDIE BERT (Musician): We were all excited, because it was different music.

FISHKO: Trombonist Eddie Bert had played with Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and others.

Mr. BERT: You have to have your head set for Monk - I mean, he plays different than anybody, so we had to adapt.

FISHKO: The Monk tentet included Robert Northern, now known as Brother Ah, playing French horn.

Mr. ROBERT NORTHERN (Musician): And the instrumentation - when I asked Hall Overton what's the instrumentation, and he's telling me, you know, tuba - and I said: What? Definitely, I want to be a part of this.

(Soundbite of piano)

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

(Soundbite of tape recording)

FISHKO: 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.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

FISHKO: The tapes reveal Hall Overton and Thelonious Monk spending long sessions getting the music written. They picked six Monk tunes to transcribe for the 10 musicians. Robert Northern heard a mutual respect and admiration between the two men.

Mr. NORTHERN: I mean, when something wasn't quite working the way Monk wanted, I mean, the love and the concern that Overton had to get it right was just beautiful to watch. And we'd sit and wait and talk while they went over to the corner somewhere and discussed it, and go to the piano. It was just beautiful.

FISHKO: It was also adventurous, especially in the case of Monk's tune "Little Rootie Tootie." Producer Orrin Keepnews says that for that one they used a piano solo by Monk as the precise model for an orchestration.

Mr. KEEPNEWS: What he's got there is the seven horns and the band playing what had been Monk's solo on a trio record.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BERT: You don't write like a band, you write like a piano. We were a big piano.

FISHKO: 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 club dates. Robert Northern recalls they often didn't start until 3 a.m.

Mr. NORTHERN: Nobody even looked around. I mean we were focused on - boom. We were into this project. 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.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

FISHKO: In the late afternoon of February 28, 1959, after two weeks of rehearsals, the musicians left the loft and headed uptown to Town Hall.

Mr. NORTHERN: The buzz got around, what we were doing. Everybody was curious. Nobody could imagine what this was gonna sound like. Many, many musicians from far and wide came to this concert.

FISHKO: Phil Woods played alto saxophone in the group.

Mr. PHIL WOODS (Musician): We get to Town Hall and did the concert, and it was magic time. All of a sudden, everything was clear.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOODS: That band played so well that night. We played the heck out of that music, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NORTHERN: It was amazing. It was... I get goose pimples talking about it, because I had never experienced that. I mean, you know, we left up - it was energizing.

FISHKO: For Northern, nine other musicians, and a concert hall audience, magic time indeed.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Fishko in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can hear this week's tribute to Thelonious Monk's Town Hall concert at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon.

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