Unearthing Unknown Monk, Coltrane Recording Larry Appelbaum of the Library of Congress recordings division talks about previously undiscovered tapes of a 1957 Carnegie Hall performance of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane.
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Unearthing Unknown Monk, Coltrane Recording

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Unearthing Unknown Monk, Coltrane Recording

Unearthing Unknown Monk, Coltrane Recording

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel, and this is a story about a jazz performance from 48 years ago that has been rediscovered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: It was Thanksgiving Jazz at Carnegie Hall, two shows to benefit a Harlem community center, and what a list of performers. According to a small ad in The New York Times of November 29th, 1957, they would include Ms. Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, Ray Charles. The ad says: `Introducing in concert, the brilliant Sonny Rollins,' and Willis Conover of the Voice of America would do the introducing. Also performing, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, including Shadow Wilson on drums, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: It turns out the concert was recorded by the Voice of America, never broadcast and for years, the recording was lost and forgotten, until this year. Larry Appelbaum, a jazz specialist at the Library of Congress, was going through old VOA recordings.

Mr. LARRY APPELBAUM (Library of Congress): One day in late January of 2005, I was thumbing through some tapes about to be digitized, and I noticed there were eight reels, eight 10-inch reels of acetate tape, that were labeled `Carnegie Hall Jazz, 1957.' As a jazz specialist, I know that 1957's a very good year for jazz, so I looked a little bit further, saw on the back on one of the reels--it said `T. Monk' with some song titles, and I'm thinking, `Hmm. OK. Maybe some unpublished Monk.' I got pretty excited. And then when we went to digitize the tapes, I recognized the tenor saxophone of John Coltrane and my heart started to race.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. APPELBAUM: I knew it was Coltrane because I love his music so much. And he's got such a distinctive sound, a tone, a concept, and that's when I knew it was Coltrane. And then, of course, when I heard the announcements by Willis Conover, he confirmed the personnel of the group.

SIEGEL: One of the songs on this CD is what I think of as Monk's signature tune, it was "Epistrophy."


SIEGEL: I guess he opened and closed very often with it. Coltrane plays it; I'd never heard that before.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

Mr. APPELBAUM: It's an inspiring performance on all levels. And it's intriguing to me. Not only is it Monk's sort of idiosyncratic composition, but if you think about their two styles, it's hard to believe that they would work so well together. Monk very spare, he places his notes perfectly in such unusual places. It sounds simple until you go and try to play something like that and then you realize only Monk can do that. Coltrane not simple at all; complex. He's stacking chords on top of each other. And I really like the way Monk lays out, leaves space, for Coltrane to paint his picture.

(Soundbite of "Epistrophy")

SIEGEL: Tell us about 1957 in the lives and careers of the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and the great sax player John Coltrane.

Mr. APPELBAUM: 1957's a fascinating year. You have Monk and Coltrane working together for about six months primarily at a club on the Lower East Side called the Five Spot. When they first started playing at the Five Spot, Coltrane was just a bit tentative. The tunes are very difficult and, of course, Monk doesn't write out the changes for anybody; he makes you learn them on the spot using your ear.

But this concert takes places later that year, so they had been working together steadily. Coltrane was much more comfortable with the songs, the compositions, and you can hear it. He really brings it to life. And this group is not feeling each other out; this group is really creating collectively. It's inspiring.

SIEGEL: Coltrane left Monk a few months after this. I mean, this is--we're getting toward the end of their collaboration, and then he goes on to great things.

Mr. APPELBAUM: He goes back to Miles Davis, and then he goes off and forms his own group. And that's when he starts this sort of sprint for five, six years, or seven years, really, that helps change the whole direction of jazz.

SIEGEL: One delightful surprise of this CD is in listening to music that was recorded in 1957. It sure doesn't sound like it's old and scratchy and low-fi. It's awfully present and sounds terrific.

Mr. APPELBAUM: Often, the concerts at Carnegie Hall were recorded with overhead microphones that were sort of set there permanently. But clearly, somebody took the time to set up microphones, and whoever did it really knew what they were doing because it's, like, perfect microphone placement for each of these instruments. You hear the full range of the piano, you hear the presence of Coltrane and his saxophone, you hear all those subtle things with Shadow Wilson and you hear the definition of Ahmed Abdul-Malik's bass.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. APPELBAUM: I finally tracked down who the engineer was. It was a man named Harry Hochberg who lived here in Washington. When VOA moved from New York to DC in the early '50s, he came down here. And he was working, and he did many of the jazz programs for Voice of America, like the Newport Jazz Festivals. So we finally can credit this engineer, this unnamed, anonymous engineer that we've all been praising for all these months. We finally know who to thank for the sound quality of these tapes.

SIEGEL: So lest anyone think that we're only hearing a brilliant recovery done in the 21st century, we're also really hearing some just brilliant, brilliant engineering from 1957.

Mr. APPELBAUM: Oh, if you listen to the original tapes, you'll be stunned at how good they sound. I'm so glad that they invested the resources, the time and the care because this is what we have. This is our only document of that event.

SIEGEL: And it's now out on CD.

Mr. APPELBAUM: It is. And it will soon be out on LP.

SIEGEL: Eight-track, too?

Mr. APPELBAUM: We can hope. Do you have a player?

SIEGEL: Well, Larry, thanks a lot for talking to us.

Mr. APPELBAUM: It's a great pleasure.

SIEGEL: Larry Appelbaum of the Library of Congress.

The CD is called "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall." You can hear more music from the performance and see pages from the 1957 concert program at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music; applause)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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