52-Year-Old Thelonious Monk Concert at Palo Alto High School to Be Released

In the late 1960s, a precocious student named Danny Scher was the elected social commissioner at Palo Alto High School in Northern California. His duties included organizing dances and assemblies, but Mr. Scher, who grew up playing in jazz bands, wanted jazz musicians to perform at the school, too. He convinced the vibraphonist Cal Tjader, the singer Jon Hendricks and the pianist Vince Guaraldi (of “Peanuts” fame) to play separate gigs in the school’s spacious auditorium. Then he turned his attention to his idol, Thelonious Monk.

Monk, a pianist, was more than a decade past his most famous recordings and near the end of an unfruitful run at Columbia Records when his manager got the request from Mr. Scher. The jazz titan agreed to perform at the school on Sunday, Oct. 27, 1968. He was already scheduled to be in the area for a three-week stint at the Jazz Workshop, a club in San Francisco, so Mr. Scher had his older brother Les drive there and pick up the pianist and his band. There were no plans to preserve the one-off concert, but a school janitor asked Mr. Scher whether he could record the show if he tuned the piano.

Now, 52 years later, Impulse! Records and Legacy Recordings are releasing it as an album called “Palo Alto” that captures the 47-minute concert in full. The “Palo Alto” recording had collected dust in the attic of Mr. Scher’s family home until he contacted Monk’s son — the jazz drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk — about releasing it. Digitally restored and widely available for the first time on Friday, “Palo Alto” captures a band hitting a high note, even as Monk battled personal and professional turmoil.

Monk and the saxophonist Charlie Rouse in 1969. Indebted to his label because he missed recording sessions the previous year, the pianist hit the road to make money.
Credit…Veryl Oakland

Monk and his touring band — the drummer Ben Riley, the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and the bassist Larry Gales — performed in Palo Alto as the city, like much of the United States, was gripped by tension. America was rocked by the war in Vietnam and the shooting deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Locally, there was friction between residents of the mostly white Palo Alto and the mostly Black East Palo Alto, an unincorporated area with high unemployment rates. The residents of East Palo Alto didn’t have voting power to govern their own town, and by 1968, local leaders established schools and other institutions to educate residents about Black culture.

The pressure came to a head in 1968, when a contingent of younger East Palo Alto residents started a campaign to rename the city “Nairobi,” after the capital of Kenya. The Monk gig happened a week before the name change was up for a vote before the East Palo Alto Municipal Council. (It was defeated by a margin of two to one.)

In a Zoom interview, Mr. Scher said he was warned by the police department in East Palo Alto to not post fliers advertising the show there. “Wherever I saw a poster that said, ‘Vote yes on Nairobi,’ I’d put up an ad, ‘Come and see Thelonious Monk at Palo Alto High School,’” he said. “The police would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, kid. Hey, white boy, this is not really a cool place for you to be, given what’s going on. You’re going to get in trouble here. This isn’t cool.’”

But Mr. Scher had a show to promote: “I’ve got to sell tickets, and if you think I’m in trouble by being here, I’ll be in even more trouble if the show doesn’t do well.”

Tickets were priced at $ 2 and weren’t selling well, at least not initially. That’s when Mr. Scher added two noted local bands as openers: the seven-piece Jym Marks Afro Ensemble and Smoke, an avant-garde free jazz band. Both groups had been popular in the Black community, and their presence might encourage the residents of East Palo Alto to consider coming to the show, Mr. Scher thought.

There was still skepticism, though. Aside from the thick racial friction, many people didn’t think an artist as prominent as Monk would actually show up to play at a high school. Just two days before the gig, Mr. Scher called Monk at the Jazz Workshop to make sure it was still on. It’s a good thing he did.

“I said, ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing you at my school,’” Mr. Scher recalled. “He said, ‘What are you talking about?’” The student explained there was a contract, and tickets had been sold. Monk asked how he’d get to Palo Alto. “I said, ‘Well, my brother’s old enough to drive to the city so he can come get you,’” Mr. Scher said. “And Monk said, ‘OK.’ So I didn’t think anything of it.”

The show didn’t sell out until Les drove through the parking lot, which was full of East Palo Alto residents, with Monk and his band. “I remember the bass sticking out of the window,” Mr. Scher said.

On the surface, it would seem there’s nothing exceptional about “Palo Alto,” on which Monk plays his older music, including stately renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Well, You Needn’t” and “Don’t Blame Me,” along with a piano cover of Rudy Vallee’s “I Love You Sweetheart of All of My Dreams.” But according to Robin D.G. Kelley, who wrote the definitive 2009 biography “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” the live recording catches the Monk quartet at a final creative high.

Credit…Larry Fink

“It was a great band, and it was just about to break up, so this is one of the last recordings of this particular configuration,” Mr. Kelley said in a Zoom interview. “You get a sense that Ben Riley and Larry Gales, they’re playing as if it’s their last concert. They know they’re about to cut out, so they’re going to come in there and just blow.”

Monk spent much of 1968 struggling with health challenges that slowed his output and ultimately led to his isolation. Earlier that year, he’d suffered a seizure and ended up in a coma, which caused him to miss scheduled recording sessions. Indebted to his label, he hit the road early to handle financial obligations that arose during his illness.

The Palo Alto performance energized the pianist, then 51. “He was feeling real, real good, and you could hear it in his playing,” T.S. Monk said in a Zoom interview. “For us jazz musicians, if you’re working steady, that’s when your thing really comes together,” he said. “So he had been working steady with this group, and they were just on it.”

For a few hours, the Palo Alto show united Black and white residents, who briefly set their differences aside to enjoy the music. “It was white, Black, young, old, high school, grandparents and parents at the end,” Mr. Scher said. “To me, this was like pressing pause. It was like a time out. ‘Let’s just all get along. Let’s just hear some great music for a day.’”

The following March, Mr. Scher booked the pianist and jazz great Duke Ellington to perform with the California Youth Symphony at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Mr. Scher says he has it on tape, and that it’s “never been released, or even really listened to, to speak of.” Mr. Scher went on to become a top concert promoter after he graduated from Stanford University, spending two decades working for the well-known rock promoter Bill Graham — where he developed the Shoreline Amphitheater into a powerhouse venue — before he started his own promotion business and later moved on into real estate.

Following the Palo Alto gig, Monk released his last few studio albums on Black Lion Records, a British label, before fading into obscurity. He died from a stroke in New Jersey in 1982.

Jazz never let up its hold on Mr. Scher, whose ringtone is Mr. Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The processional song at his wedding was “Sophisticated Lady,” a jazz standard that Mr. Monk also performed in 1955. “In everyone’s life, something comes along that speaks to them,” Mr. Scher said. “And for some reason, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington just spoke to me. And even to this day, they speak to me.”

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