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New Monk, Coltrane Recording Discovered
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New Monk, Coltrane Recording Discovered

ED GORDON, host:

We move now from great pianists to a great discovery. This week, the Blue Note label released perhaps the most anticipated jazz record of the year. It's a newly found performance by pianist Thelonious Monk--who, by the way, was ranked number 15 on the list--and saxophonist John Coltrane. As NPR's Roy Hurst found out, there's nothing like the resurfacing of a long-lost recording to spark a few good jazz stories.

ROY HURST reporting:

As jazz treasures go, this one--at least for the moment--tops the list. Straight out of a time capsule from 1957 comes the pristine and ultrarare recordings of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. For the hard-core jazz fan, the recordings are something of a Holy Grail. The tapes were found buried among the National Archives.

Mr. LARRY APPLEBAUM (Senior Supervising Audio Engineer, Library of Congress): And I was just thumbing through these tapes just to see what was in the pipeline ahead.

HURST: That's Larry Applebaum, senior supervising audio engineer at the Library of Congress. He'd been assigned to catalogue about 50,000 tapes from the old radio program "Voice of America."

Mr. APPLEBAUM: And I noticed on the back of one of the tape boxes it said in handwritten, penciled notes `T. Monk,' with some song titles.

HURST: The thought of finding unpublished recordings of Thelonious Monk, one of the true geniuses of modern jazz, got Applebaum excited.

Mr. APPLEBAUM: I'm also the unofficial jazz specialist at the library.

HURST: He rushed to put on the tape.

Mr. APPLEBAUM: First thing I heard was "Bye-Ya," which is one of my favorite Monk tunes.

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

Mr. APPLEBAUM: And then when I heard the tenor saxophone, I said, `Wait a minute! That's John Coltrane!'

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

Mr. APPLEBAUM: My heart started to race.

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

Mr. APPLEBAUM: It's not only Monk with Coltrane, it's Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Shadow Wilson playing drums.

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

HURST: There were nine songs in all--all classic, quirky Monk compositions. The Library of Congress knew what they had, a documentation of one of the most important and rarely heard collaborations in all of jazz history.

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

HURST: They held a press conference. The New York Times published an article.

Mr. APPLEBAUM: That sort of blew the lid off. We heard from every major record label. Now keep in mind that the Library of Congress does not retain any rights to this recording. It's the Monk estate that basically calls the shots for that particular performance that night.

(Soundbite of "Bye-Ya")

Mr. T.S. MONK (Drummer and Bandleader): I said, `That sounds exciting, and I'm delighted that you picked up the phone and called me rather than picking up the phone and calling a record company.' And I said, `Well, you know, send it along. You know, send it along and let me see what it is.'

HURST: Drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk is the son of Thelonious.

Mr. MONK: From the moment I put it on, within the first 25 seconds of that tape, I realized that this was a discovery of monumental proportions, and I flipped.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Mood")

HURST: This song is called "Monk's Mood."

(Soundbite of "Monk's Mood")

Mr. MONK: This ethereal, sort of roboto thing comes at me from Thelonious, and then it's joined by Coltrane.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Mood")

Mr. MONK: And I immediately said, `Oh, my God.'

(Soundbite of "Monk's Mood")

HURST: Blue Note Records won out in the bid to release the recording. Why is this recording so special? Well, for historians it demonstrates the artistic development of the two men, especially John Coltrane. Now the patron saint of the tenor saxophone, in 1957 Coltrane was trying to rebound from the lowest point in his career. Only a couple of years earlier, he'd been lifted out of obscurity by Miles Davis to become Davis' most prized musical prodigy. But he was subsequently kicked out of Davis' group for being unreliable due to heroin addiction. He went home to Philadelphia to kick the habit.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Mood")

HURST: 1957 was also the year Monk got his cabaret card restored. He'd been blacklisted from New York clubs six years prior because of his own run-in with narcotics.

Mr. MONK: Look, let's get real right here.

HURST: Again, the son of Thelonious Monk, T.S.

Mr. MONK: Thelonious had been maligned by the Police Department, had his cabaret card taken away, which was a tool that was used against a lot of African-American musicians to keep them out of the marketplace. So he was off of the radar.

HURST: So now Thelonious Monk at the age of 40 was being allowed to play in nightclubs again, but he needed to put together a band, and not everyone could play his difficult, quirky compositions. Enter John Coltrane, back in New York with his horn, clean and looking for new challenges.

Mr. MONK: And I remember Coltrane coming to the house day after day after day after day.

HURST: T.S. was seven years old at the time.

Mr. MONK: And it was a very intense thi--I mean, now, when I view it through the eyes of an adult, I realize that it was almost like a think tank situation where Thelonious was pushing and extolling this guy. I can still hear my father say, `C'mon, man. C'mon, man. You can play this. You can play this.' And things like, you know, `Don't worry about what the cats are saying, man. Later from the cats.' And just pushing this cat. And it seemed like it went on for a year, but being seven years old I'm sure it probably went on for a couple of months.

HURST: T.S. says that by the time the two came together at Carnegie Hall a few months later, Coltrane was transformed.

Mr. MONK: Let's take a song. Let's take "Epistrophy."

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

Mr. MONK: If you listen to "Epistrophy," "Epistrophy" is almost the first forays into sort of the modal kind of sound that Coltrane became famous for. It was something different. It didn't have a whole lot of changes, but the way the changes were structured allowed a new kind of freedom.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

Mr. MONK: So when I listen to "Epistrophy," it just reeks of future John Coltrane. This don't certainly don't sound like the same cat that was playing with Miles. He's playing differently.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

Mr. MONK: John Coltrane was doing what one wants to do, but only geniuses are able to do. He was playing piano on the tenor saxophone. It's incredible. And you can hear it. That's because John Coltrane had learned Monk's language, and Thelonious knew it.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

Mr. MONK: Nothing happens in a vacuum in life, and nobody does it alone minus influence in jazz. And it's more apparent than ever, as John Coltrane said himself, that he was profoundly--profoundly--influenced by Thelonious Monk. And then he shot out like a Saturn V rocket and the rest is history.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

HURST: T.S. says that now the undeniable proof of Thelonious Monk's influence on John Coltrane is there for all to see. It's all made possible by a surprise discovery in a musty corner of the National Archives. "Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" was released this week. Roy Hurst, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")


GORDON: To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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