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Monk – Live At The Jazz Workshop, 1964
Thelonious Monk – piano. Charlie Rouse – tenor. Larry Gales – bass. Ben Riley – drums.

Thelonious Monk played his first San Francisco club engagement in October of 1959. According to all accounts, opening night (at the Black Hawk, one of the city’s two top-ranked jazz clubs) was close to a total disaster. In a complete reversal of the way legend has always typecast Thelonious, he showed up for work more or less on time – but he was the only one on the bandstand. The rest of his quartet never made it.

Well, actually Charlie Rouse, who had joined Monk almost exactly a year earlier and was to remain his constant working companion through the entire Columbia Records period, showed up for the second set. (His excuse was weird enough to have the ring of truth to it. Arriving in town that afternoon, and feeling quite travel-weary, he had checked into a YMCA near the club and took a nap that lasted quite a while longer than planned, having requested a wake-up call that for some reason was never made.) This was more than two years after Monk’s great breakthrough, when playing with the emerging John Coltrane at New York’s soon-to-be-legendary Five Spot had started him towards new heights of public acclaim. Nevertheless, the booking apparently only paid enough to enable him to take one sideman across the country. The Los Angeles bassist and drummer hired for the week showed up the next day, but it was no way for a great pianist to first encounter one of America’s great cultural centers.


I know all of this for a certainty because I was in San Francisco at the time. Actually, the only reason I wasn’t at the Black Hawk that evening was because I was recording not too far away – at the Jazz Workshop, where the young Cannonball Adderley quintet was taping a “live” album that would lead them to world-wide stardom.


(Major companies often having been slow to respond to the less obvious jazz forms of that day, both artists were then recording for my New York based independent label, Riverside.) During the week I had reason to learn that Thelonious was rapidly gaining an appreciation of the California city; I still vividly recall the day he took me to lunch at a family-style Italian restaurant in the North Beach area, where the staff greeted him affectionately.

Among the more important things that happened to Monk during the next few years were several returns to the jazz clubs of that city and the beginning of a long relationship with a major label. The latter move led to a much higher profile for Thelonious, including the same rare honor gained by fellow Columbia Records star Dave Brubeck – having his picture on the cover of Time magazine! In the fall of 1964, the two elements combined when Monk, this time carrying a full cadre of musicians, played successive engagements at the It Club in Los Angeles, and the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and Columbia elected to record him in performance at both venues. (Opening night in the City by the Bay was, without question, a much happier occasion than in 1959.)~


Of course there was a bit of maneuvering and inconvenience involved. Either economy or efficiency, or perhaps the schedule of Teo Macero, Monk’s designated producer at the label, dictated that the two chunks of location recording were jammed together – almost literally back to back. The band was recorded in Los Angeles on a Saturday and Sunday, the last two night of that stand, and then again further north on the first two of the next. (And Monk barely got time to travel – a good part of his off-day was spent in a Los Angeles studio cutting five numbers for a planned solo piano album.) It actually is a seriously bad idea to record right at the start of an on-the-road club date. The musicians haven’t yet gotten used to their new hotel rooms and how to get from the lobby to the job, let alone feeling comfortable and relaxed on the bandstand or in the backstage area, or accustomed to how they sound in the room.


But in addition to several better-known attributes, Thelonious Monk was a thorough professional, capable of working productively under almost any circumstances. It helped that he possessed limitless self-confidence – including both an instinctive faith in his own ability and the conviction that he had clothed his sidemen in the same invulnerable armor. And more than any other jazz artist in my experience, he seemed able to block out the influence of the tape machine, to proceed without appearing to be altering his performance to accommodate the requirements of recording. If you happen to be the producer in charge of the live recording session, this last quality is not necessarily a good thing. Usually – though perhaps not always – some adjustments should be made. Visual elements help make a drum solo more exciting; maintain audience interest for longer stretches of time, involve the viewer/listener more deeply through the charisma of an intriguing personality. But in constructing an album that will remain fascinating when deprived of any visual aids, it is not always possible to retain total reality. The most effective live recordings are often those that appear to be entirely natural and unrestricted, but actually are planned and disciplined. Monk was never particularly interested in or approving of simulation or compromise in connection with his music. (I have produced what I consider rather successful in-person Monk albums, but it certainly was far from easy.)


One striking characteristic of the body of music here is the lack of repetition. Aside from the set-closing theme, “Epistrophy,” only one number (“Evidence”) appears to have been played more than once a night. This much variety is certainly how Thelonious would have programmed an evening of club work, but it is definitely not the prescribed way to make a record. In the studio, standard procedure is to repeat a selection until you are satisfied, then go on to the next. Most club recording varies this only by not repeating anything immediately, but concentrates on limited repertoire and repeats almost everything in each new set – which in this era meant three or four times a night. This may partially explain why Columbia issued virtually none of the 1964 California live material for almost two decades – and then only chose to release a limited number of selections. And several of those had been trimmed in length to something closer to the duration of a studio recording, usually by drastic shortening or even elimination of bass and drum solos.


But in preparing the reissue versions of this material, I was fortunately not asked to prepare a ‘normal’ record. Instead, it could be something of more historical validity, could draw its real strength from being a valid recreation of how it felt to spend time in a club when Monk was performing. Basically this is a pretty complete recreation of what he played when the tape machines were rolling on each of his quartet’s first two nights at the Jazz Workshop. Some selections were, for whatever reasons, incompletely recorded, and there’s a good possibility that tape was not continuously rolling all the time. But this is whatever can be considered issuable from two nights of work. It seems clear that the audience for jazz records usually demands perfection in what emerges from the studio, but is quite prepared to relish quirks and imperfections in on-the-spot recordings. That works out particularly well in this instance. If what you are looking for in a ‘live’ recording is something direct and honest, possibly a little rough (as the artist recalls and reaches out for a number he may not have included in his standard repertoire for years), but never at all routine or standardized – if that’s what you have in mind, it’s hard to think of anyone better equipped than Thelonious to provide it. Via.

Orrin Keepnews – October 2000

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