Friday, August 23, 2013

Thelonious and ‘Trane

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The Five Spot Cafe was initially situated at 5 Cooper Square, New York. The Termini brothers, who were the club owners, relocated it to 2 St. Marks Place. The place was small, with tables relative close to one another plus a small stage where the performers did their act. Musicians performing at the original Five Spot included Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus. Mingus was the one who performed the last gig before it was demolished. Five Spot had been a neighborhood bar; it started featuring jazz at the suggestion of other artists as well as poets who were moving into the nearby apartments during the 1940s. It rose to prominence on the music scene of New York when Thelonious Monk started living near the place; his seven-month gig at the club was a milestone for both him, [John Coltrane] and the Five Spot.”
- Martin Williams, Jazz Changes

The Library of Congress holds the nation's largest public collection of sound recordings and radio broadcasts, with some 2.5 million recordings representing nearly every sound recording format.

A grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1940 helped create the Library's Recording Laboratory, which now works to preserve and provide access to endangered and historically significant audio collections held by the Library of Congress.

In 1963 the Library acquired the Voice of America Collection, which includes more than 50,000 tapes and discs of musical and other cultural events. Of further interest to jazz researchers, LC has the collections of Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, Billy Taylor, Charlie Barnett, and Louis BeUson, as well as the famous 1938 Jelly Roll Morton oral histories.

For more information about the Library's Recorded Sound collections, contact the Recorded Sound Reference Center: http://www,

“Everything they play is exciting, dynamic, sometimes adventurous, and very much in sync. Monk is having such a good time at the piano that he hardly gets up from the bench. The stories from the Five Spot in this period always portray Monk as dancing around or heading toward the bar while Coltrane blows with the rhythm section. But what Monk is playing underneath Coltrane is pure brilliance; to call it "comping" simply does not do justice to the creative dialogue Thelonious is having with the entire band.
- Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk, A Life

In Monk, Coltrane found "a musical architect of the highest order." In Coltrane, Monk found an analytical brother—a musician who shared in his intellectual approach and remained true to the sound and structure of his music. "Monk's music had been played already before Trane with different saxophonists, but I think Trane was more precise," pianist Tommy Flanagan once noted. "He was more careful about learn­ing things exactly like Monk meant."
- Ashley Kahn, author of John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

While I wished that it were otherwise, things often don’t work out for the best in the Jazz World.

This was often due to a combination of eugenics and euthenics, or, broadly speaking, to artistic temperament and environment.

Amazingly, given the discipline it takes to master an instrument well enough to play Jazz on it, such control and restraint was often lacking in Jazz musicians when it came to meeting the demands of making it commercially so as to be able to eat and pay the rent on a regular basis.

It didn’t help that, all-too-often, the venues in which the Jazz musician had to earn a living were nightclubs that were managed by less-than-scrupulous owners whose greatest concern was with how much water they could get into a bottle of booze in order to generate the maximum amount of revenue coming out of it.

Occasionally, there was an understanding saloon owner who cared for the well-being of musicians and there were even rarer opportunities to get Jazz out of an atmosphere of booze and smoke and onto the concert stage.

Such was the case in the glorious year of 1957 for both pianist/composer Thelonious Monk and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who thanks to the munificence of the Termini brothers, got to spend a good deal of time in each others’ company at The Five Spot Café in lower Manhattan.

The capstone of this year of self-discovery for Thelonious and ‘Trane was a November 29, 1957 performance at Carnegie Hall.

The nine months or so that Monk and Coltrane spent together in 1957 turned their personal lives around and help to launch their professional careers in new directions.

Suffice to say that eating regularly and paying the rent would no longer be issues in their lives and neither would unprincipled tavern owners. The concert stage, too, became a regular venue for their respective quartets.

The Termini brothers and The Five Spot Café have long been documented as an incubator for the Thelonious Monk Quartet featuring John Coltrane.

What was not known until the relatively recent discovery of the lost tapes to the concert was their performance together as part of a Thanksgiving Jazz Festival that was held at Carnegie Hall on Friday, November 29, 1957.

When Blue Note Records issued the tapes to this concert after they were discovered in 2005 they included six, different writers views of their significance as the insert notes to the recording. The editorial staff at JazzProfiles have included all of these vantage points below in a slightly rearranged sequence.

© -Larry Applebaum, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Discovery

“The Library has been systematically process­ing, cataloging, and preserving the Voice of America Collection for many years. In February of 2005, while thumbing through some VGA acetate tapes awaiting digitization, I noticed several reels labeled "Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957." One of the tape boxes had a hand­written note on the back that said T. Monk" with song titles. When we played it, I recog­nized both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and my heart started racing. I con­firmed with Lewis [Porter of The Institute of Jazz Studies] that these tapes had never surfaced or been released in any form. They were indeed the tapes he'd been searching for all these years.

We've discovered many rare recordings here over the years, but this one is special.
It reminds us once again why it's so important to preserve these unique materials. It's why we do what we do, and why we love this work.

There's always more.

—LARRY APPELBAUM, Recording Lab Supervisor, Library of Congress”

© -Robin D. G. Kelley, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Thelonious Monk

“Thelonious Monk was in a good mood this night. Even if we knew nothing of his life up to that point, anyone with ears could tell the music came from a place of joy. The band was remarkably tight, after having played regularly at the Five Spot since July of 1957, and they were simply having a ball. (Coltrane and Wilson joined Monk on July 18, 1957; Abdul-Malik replaced Wilbur Ware, who was part of the original quartet, a month later.)

Thelonious had other reasons to be happy. Here he was, playing his music before an enthusiastic crowd in Carnegie Hall, when just a year ago he was scuffling for work. Indeed, his Five Spot engagement marked Monk's "return" to the jazz club scene after a six-year hiatus. In August of 1951, he was falsely arrest­ed for narcotics possession and deprived of his cabaret card, a police-issued "license" required to perform in New York clubs that served alco­hol. The truth of the matter is that his last steady gig was with Coleman Hawkins back in 1945-46!

The occasion for the concert, a fundraiser for the Morningside Community Center, also made the evening especially gratifying for Thelonious. Located on West 122nd Street in Harlem, the Morningside Community Center served some 4,000 mostly black, low-income youth, providing a range of programs including a summer camp, a day nursery, and a men­tal hygiene clinic. Thelonious had a soft spot for these kinds of institutions, having spent most of his youth at the Columbus Hill Neighborhood Center, a youth center located just across the street from his house on West 63rd Street. Thanks to the hard work of the "Friends" of the Morningside Community Center and promoter Kenneth Karpe, the group had put together several star-studded fundraisers employing the talents of artists like Lena Home and Marian Anderson. This night was no different. Monk shared the stage with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, and "the brilliant Sonny Rollins."

When it is all said and done, however, the music really speaks for itself. For so long, this particular band has been the stuff of legend because, in spite of their long engagement at the Five Spot, they only recorded three songs together in the studio (with Wilbur Ware on bass). The rapport between the whole band is astonishing in and of itself, but what makes these performances so historic are the sur­prises. "Monk's Mood," for example, is a startlingly beautiful dialogue with Coltrane, with

Monk playing these sensuous arpeggios and runs underneath Coltrane's interpretation of the theme. And they are not the "whole tone" runs we've come to expect from Monk.

The arrangement of "Blue Monk" is another nice surprise, with Coltrane playing the melody a minor third below (except for the first note, which begins on Bb, a major third below). This changes the sonority significantly, setting up a different kind of exploration of the blues.

It is a sheer pleasure to listen to the interac­tion between Monk and Wilson. Just check out Wilson's cymbal work on "Epistrophy" and the surprising moment when Monk mimics a little five-beat lick Wilson pulls out of his snare drum.

Everything they play is exciting, dynamic, sometimes adventurous, and very much in sync. Monk is having such a good time at the piano that he hardly gets up from the bench. The stories from the Five Spot in this period always portray Monk as dancing around or heading toward the bar while Coltrane blows with the rhythm section. But what Monk is playing underneath Coltrane is pure brilliance; to call it "comping" simply does not do justice to the creative dialogue Thelonious is having with the entire band.

This remarkable recording confirms, for me at least, that the Monk-Coltrane quartet was one of the most important ensembles of the 1950s, if not the century. Let's hope there are more discoveries to be made.

author of Thelonious: A Life (forthcoming, The Free Press)”

© -Lewis Porter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

John Coltrane

“Coltrane had already performed at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy Gillespie (1949) and Miles Davis (1955); Monk might not have played there before, but he had been at other halls. Still, both were far from jaded, and in this evening of sharing the bill with Gillespie, Rollins, et al, the excitement is evident. At the start, Monk is flying all over the keyboard on "Monk's Mood." When Trane enters, his tone is captured beautifully, and one can hear the ambience of the hall. The second set, by con­trast, has a real "late show" quality — there is an audibly smaller audience, and the quartet stretches out with longer solos and a more relaxed feel. (There are no bass or drum solos in either set, so as to keep things within the allotted time.) This is a working band, com­fortable together (they had been at the Five

Spot, with just a few weeks off, since July 18, and would be there for a few more weeks). Notice how John comes in with the theme dur­ing Monk's solo on "Evidence" — Monk proba­bly gave him a visual cue. Trane plays harmony to the melody on "Blue Monk." "Sweet and Lovely" is the most arranged piece of the night, going in and out of double-time.

Trane enthusiasts will know that the other recordings of Monk and Trane are all undated — the studio session (Riverside) is believed to be from the summer of 1957, and the Five Spot tape (Blue Note), originally assumed to be from 1957, most probably documents a one-night reunion on September 11, 1958. (There are two additional undated tracks at under "Webcasts.") It's nice to have a firm date for the present concert, since

that enables us to place it in context among other recordings from the time — for example, it followed Blue Train from September 15, 1957 and preceded Davis's Milestones LP from February and March 1958. Coltrane, who felt liberated playing with Monk, double-times incessantly (the "sheets of sound" noted by Ira Gitler), often playing fast scales. The runs would become more complex throughout 1958, after which he dropped the "sheets" and moved on to other things. Two of his favorite patterns appear in nearly every solo here. One, his descending diminished pattern (p.134 in my book), forms the basis of his opening cadenza on "Monk's Mood" (1:56) and appears, for example, three times between 1:46 and 2:00 on the first "Epistrophy." The other, which Jimmy Heath pointed out (p.67), appears often in "Bye-Ya" (1:20,1:26,1:29,1:47,1:49, 2:56). Bits of Coltrane's past survive here: few people real­ize that Coltrane absorbed some ideas from Paul Gonsalves when both were with Gillespie, and perhaps that influence can still be heard in two places ("Bye-Ya" 1:35; the second "Epistrophy" 1:46) — by 1958 it was gone. The future is coming through here, as well. At 2:27 on "Nutty," Trane plays a striking lick that
would turn up again in 1958, and at 1:58 in the same solo he briefly plays pentatonic patterns, which would become a major focus of his in 1959 and beyond. On the second "Epistrophy," Trane begins his solo with little rising arpeg­gios (0:44), and he brings in a similar idea later (1:35) — nice stuff! And as was always the case, Coltrane drew inspiration from the blues — past, present, and future.

About Monk — I wonder if it ever has been so clear just how outrageous he was — check out "Crepuscule with Nellie," especially the ending, and try to imagine how it would have sounded to you, in that hall, almost 50 years ago. Also dig how Monk fits in a lick from "52nd Street Theme" just after Trane enters (2:28)! And how about his 5-bar intro to "Sweet and Lovely"?! Since I first came across references to this taped event in 1996, I'd been inquiring at the Library of Congress in hopes that it would turn up — and it fully lives up to expec­tations!

—LEWIS PORTER, Jazz professor at Rutgers-Newark, author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music and one of five authors of the forthcoming Coltrane reference ook (Routkdge, 2007).”

© -Stanley Crouch, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The High Priest and The Budding Innovator

When Walter Davis, Jr. asked Bud Powell whom he should listen to after Powell himself, the biggest influence on bebop piano players answered, "Monk. If I had Tatum's technique and Monk's mind, there would be no other piano players. Wait. Forget Tatum. If I had my technique and Monk's mind, there would be no other piano players. Listen to Monk. He has the mind.

It was always like that. Thelonious Monk was the grand thinker of the World War II gen­eration that invented bebop, but he was not a bopper though his knowledge had been essen­tial to what both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the twin fountainheads of that age, brought to the bebop style. While Monk made marvelous recordings for Blue Note at the end of the forties and in the early fifties, his impor­tance was beyond that of a signal composer for small bands and a piano player second to none in his originality. I submit that Monk was also the greatest influence on the thinking of most major jazz musicians since Charlie Parker.

It seems very obvious, in reflection. His sense of abstraction, of reducing things to their startling essences was fundamental to Miles Davis, who began to believe that less is more, which was quite a rejoinder to the bebop idea that more is more. Sonny Rollins has referred to Monk as his guru and we have no doubt that Rollins gathered the thematic conception of improvising from him. John Coltrane's vision of modality might well be rooted in the fact that Monk would provide him with hours of exam­ples of what could be done with a single chord if a question about one chord was asked by the saxophonist. It is also obvious that the learning of Monk's "Trinkle, Tinkle" so revolutionized Coltrane's rhythmic and phrasing style that its impact remained with him until the end of his life. Deep students of the music say that Wayne Shorter's harmony is built upon Monk's, and there is little doubt that the thematic way in which Ornette Coleman approaches his music is another variation on Monk's decided use of thematic elements in his improvising as opposed to chord-running arpeggios that make no references to the theme at hand. I think that settles the question.

All of that adds up what you have in your hands, which is the second discovery of Monk and Coltrane in performance that Blue Note has presented to the world. When Coltrane joined Monk for the summer of 1957 at New York's Five Spot, the quartet engagement, which included bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, rumbled the jazz world. Many felt that something new was taking place because the brilliance of Monk's playing had become more apparent over the last fifteen years, the stark and startling beauty of his compositions sprayed pungency and steel shavings into the air, and John Coltrane, from whom few had ever expected so much, was coming forward as an intellectual and intensely passionate force while redefining the way the tenor saxophone was played.

J. J. Johnson, one of the supreme intellectuals of the bebop generation, found the combination the most exciting thing he had heard since Parker and Gillespie appeared in the middle forties, and the critic Martin Williams was ecstatic about the quality of the playing. Many bemoaned the fact that the group was not recorded, though a few selections appeared years later that were done in the studio but, some said, lacked the spark of the evenings at the Five Spot. Then a set of the band at the Five Spot in September of 1958 appeared. Coltrane was subbing for Johnny Griffin who had replaced him when he returned to Miles Davis's band. That set was profoundly exciting and had the new rhythm section of Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and the drums of Roy Haynes. Now we hear three quarters of the original band at Carnegie Hall in the winter of 1957.

After almost five months of work, playing three or four sets a night to listeners, musi­cians, writers, artists, and aesthetes in the little bar room on 5th Street and the Bowery, every­one was technically assured and the pianist and the saxophonist are almost brazenly adventurous. Monk sounds especially happy to be playing a piano beyond the saloon keyboards that jazzmen were faced with for most of the music's life. It is also clear that he and his men are not there to toy around because the opening piece, "Monk's Mood," has a somber, elevated seriousness equaled only by the dark, gloomy, and inscrutably high-minded lyricism some­times heard in Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The piece is as perfect for Monk as it is for Coltrane, who was never less than ardent. "Monk's Mood" is one of the most strik­ing ballad statements ever made in the music and it is wonderfully recorded.

I have long thought that there must have been a special affinity between Monk and Coltrane since both were from North Carolina and represented in very different ways, as have almost all important jazz musicians, the com­bination of high intellect and country soul. Nearly all of the greatest are men and women from the country, either below the Mason-Dixon line or from the Midwest if not the southwest, which is why the blues and blues feeling have always been so essential: they are connectives that speak to the rural and urban underpinnings of the art. The complex mystery of the urban night of concrete and artificial light meets the enigma of the Arcadian dark­ness, where tales true or tall of dragons beneath white sheets, ghosts and spirits seem to loom as strongly as the legends shielded from view by the architecture of the big city.

In Monk and Coltrane we also have an oddly fruitful combination. Monk had always been a natural, superior talent, often winning talent contests at Harlem's Apollo when he was a youth. Though Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath would strongly disagree, the early Coltrane of legend seemed to most a journeyman at best. What gives his tale particular heroism was Coltrane's discovery that his talent was much harder to reach than that of pure naturals like Armstrong, Young, Parker, and Rollins, all of whom had to work hard but each of whom found his gift much more quickly, not that far below the surface. Coltrane is absolutely unique in jazz history. He had to dig deeper, and only a man of radiant will could have achieved what he did. Coltrane's determination demanded that practice become an ongoing obsession. That constant practicing and study­ing is not legend. It so formidably reshaped his skills and his understanding that the saxo­phonist appeared to almost suddenly stand up to the best men of his moment.

The thoroughness of Monk's self-confidence on the levels of melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm combined with Coltrane's fervor created a monumental fusion of intellect and soul that was paced and abetted by the swing of Malik and the superior style and dynamics of Wilson, which is a revelation it itself. Here they address all of the fundamental moods and grooves of jazz: the blues, 4/4 swing, the ballad, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. Through them, once again, we are made witness to the epic contribution that jazz made to Western musical performance. We hear that the present moment of improvisational creativity can be as timeless and as refined as any polished cre­ations from the great past. As this recording proves, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, above all else, are as central to that fact as every other titan of the jazz idiom.”

— STANLEY CROUCH author of The Artificial White Man

© -Amiribaraka, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In 1957 I had just come from USAF Base Ramey, Puerto Rico, A/ 2c E. L. Jones, B-36 Weather-Gunner and Night Librarian. A pit stop in Newark and then to E. 3rd Street a couple of blocks from the original Five Spot. Hence every night of that historic triumph I was there to dig Monk, Trane, Shadow Wilson, and Abdul-Malik. So wonderful, mind opening, revelational was that five months; the music, whoever heard it, that scene, and a sizeable part of the world, could never be the same.
Monk was one of my original culture heroes, from the old Blue Note, Blue covers, mystery Shades, the High Priest of my generation's first revolution. Bebop. Trane then was walking the bar in Philly and later part of the great Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, then the early Prestige sides.

By the time I got to NYC, Emmett Till's mur­der had stampeded Black America into enraged conflict with America the Ugly, as the Civil Rights Movement. The young MLK had risen in the victorious Montgomery Boycotts, responding to Rosa Parks's act of resistance and rushed into the eyes and ears of the US a Black and Actual American leader.

So '57 was a launching pad in our minds for what was to come in the popular sweep of the good; the music, was given the wheels, the will, to be not just defiant, but, you dig, Hip! Which meant, whatever ugly whatnots of the wherever you confronted, they were, at best, Corny! That is, unworthy of further contemplation.

The music and its Diggers had armed defi­ance with a sense of its own aesthetic grace. Malcolm X & John Coltrane were part of a tor­rent of fire readying in the late-'50s to burst loose from the American Slave nation, one openly political, but both also liberated from the deadly funk of spiritual paralysis that endangered the self-righteously hip... if there was no Up to their being so Down.

Monk, from the endangered species con­fines of having had his cabaret card taken away by the Bushmen of the time. Trane, from the slick doped out space of "Miles Davis's funny-timery." So the late-'50s began a period of intense struggle which was the foundation for a profound art.

In Later Trane I wrote of the context of their meeting: "Who watched Trane enter the monastery of His Outness, Thelonious, the High Priest of Gone. Then checked John strug­gling to possess Monk's deepness. It's Dignataria and thus lay for Serious, 'I'd go by his house and get him out of bed. He'd get up and go over to the piano and start playing. He'd play one of his tunes and he'd look at me. So I'd get my horn out and start trying to find out what he was playing.'

"Who checked all this understands how Monk invented Break Dancing once Trane was loaded with the vonze ('dug the arrange­ments') and so released T. Sphere to conduct the band & the whole Five Spot universe that season while autochoreographing the Beyond ... COL-trane, COL-trane, the dancer calls to hear his teaching."

What is so grand about the Carnegie tapes is that those tunes Trane was struggling with (the first couple of weeks he was near-pitiful, with the heads, but Monk pounded away at the chords) — say, "Evidence," "Monk's Mood," "Epistrophy," which grew steadily more fin­ished and exquisite during that Summer of wonder — by time of the concert a few months later, not only was Trane peerless with the heads, but now sailed off into his own furtherness and the band itself was tight as Dick's hat band.

Of even more curious delight is that one can see now how Trane's residency with that great band influenced the teacher as well. Check Monk's expansive backup arpeggios on "Monk's Mood," matching Trane's multi-noted zoom. "Epistrophy" shows the exactness the well-honed match that playing together over an extended period can produce. (Dig Duke!)

So this concert is a stunning find, not only for the purely aesthetic pleasure that truth and beauty can give, but as a profound volume of scholarship perhaps showing the denoue­ment of a particular time, here just before this perfectness turns into the searching uncer­tainties of the next period, in which both these artists are battle flags.”

— AMIRIBARAKA, Newark, July 13,2005

© -Ira Gitler, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Setting the Scene

As one of the only two of the six writers involved in the notes for this historic recording who could possibly have attended the concert that produced this music, I am still wondering why I not only wasn't there, but why I've no memory of the event nor do friends of mine, such as Dan Morgenstern, who have been in and around jazz for a long time.

I've stopped scratching my head, helped by immersing myself in the two sets by Monk and Trane and their Five Spot regulars of the time, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson. In the 1955-57 period there were two clubs that were particularly favored: Cafe Bohemia and the Five Spot Cafe. The Bohemia got hot quickly when it opened in 1955, especially after Cannonball Adderley, fresh up from Florida, created a stir when he sat in with Oscar Pettiford's group. In 1956, I was there three times a week when the Miles Davis Quintet was in residence.

I had been to the Five Spot before 1957, but when Coltrane joined Monk I was there three times a week. Joe Termini began a music policy because he was bored with merely playing Scrabble every night from behind his beer taps with his clientele, painters who were soon to become famous in the area of Abstract Expressionism. Many of them were into jazz and encouraged Joe. Dick Wetmore, talented on both violin and cornet (shades of Ray Nance), was one of the early players at the club. In '56 David Amram and Cecil Taylor began gigging — Steve Lacy was in the picture, too — and this carried over into '57. Esquire covered the scene and new audiences drifted downtown to check it out.

Monk with Trane really put in on the map — 5 Cooper Square (3rd Avenue) between 4th and 5th Streets, to be exact. It was an elemen­tal place; store front where you might see a Bowery bum mugging if you looked out through the plate-glass window; tables to your left as you walked in, until you arrived at the band­stand; more tables in front of the stand, an aisle, and a bar against the right wall, its stools also facing the bandstand; then tables curving right to the back. There was nothing fancy: low-wattage lighting and a funky men's room to the right of the bandstand. The music was all. After a theme was introduced, Monk would comp for Trane for a couple of choruses and then get up from the piano and turn him loose while dancing his elbow-led stutter-steps near the stand before returning to the piano for his solo. J. J. Johnson, in 1961, told me, "Since Charlie Parker, the most electrifying sound I've heard in contemporary jazz was Coltrane play­ing with Monk at the Five Spot ... It was incredible, like Diz and Bird."

When the half-year of collaboration ended, many lamented that the quartet had not been documented. Then came the Riverside studio recordings of July '57 with Wilbur Ware and Wilson, released on its Jazzland label a couple of years later; and the September '58 taping by Naima Coltrane at the Five Spot with Trane, Abdul-Malik, and Roy Haynes, first issued as a single CD on Blue Note in '93; and then, with speed corrected, in the complete Monk Blue Note box.

Now, almost miraculously, we have these two Carnegie Hall sets, when that august hall's acoustics were all-purpose. Coltrane soars, Monk is in top form on a fine piano (notice his quick insert of "52nd Street Theme" in the melody statement of "Crepuscule with Nellie" and a snatch of "Off Minor" in his "Bye-Ya" solo); Abdul-Malik supplies a steady bottom; and Wilson, a musician's musician, does what he always did: apply his great skills, aptly, for any group of which he was a part — in this case a very special one.

— IRA GITLER, 52nd Street, Class of W

© -Ashley Kahn, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Nine Months of Monk and Coltrane

“1957 was the year Coltrane truly became Coltrane — on a number of levels — and Thelonious Monk had more than a little to do with it.

During that twelve-month period, Coltrane's penchant for compulsive practice on his horn yielded the first phase of his signature style: slaloming through harmonic changes, playing and replaying scalar patterns, in a creative out­pouring critic Ira Gitler famously dubbed "sheets of sound." Coltrane's workaholic nature also yielded a bumper crop of recordings, including his debut as a leader (Coltrane on Prestige), the classic Blue Train album (his sole session for Blue Note), and as a sideman on seven other recordings. His return to free agent status after his firing from Miles Davis's quintet in April of that year allowed him to pur­sue any and all projects at will, to envision life as a leader in his own right, and — most sig­nificantly — to bring his drug addiction to a cold-turkey end.

In Coltrane's eyes no event in '57 was more personally significant than his trading junk and booze for the spiritual and musical reawaken­ing (of which he later wrote on A Love Supreme] that set the stage for the ten-year creative explosion that followed. No event, that is save for the nine-month residency with an equally generous and iconoclastic spirit.

“I think Monk is one of the true greats of all time. He's a real musical thinker," the saxo­phonist told Down Beat magazine in 1960. "I learned from him in every way — through the senses, theoretically, technically."

The two had bumped into each other for years. In October of '56, Monk was outraged when he saw Miles strike Coltrane backstage at Cafe Bohemia, and immediately offered the saxophonist a sideman gig. Their first chance to play together occurred the next April on a Monk session for Riverside Records — which led to ad-hoc instruction in Monk's apartment.

"We'd already recorded one song, 'Monk's Mood,' and I liked it so well," Coltrane recalled. "So he invited me around, then I started learning all of his tunes... I'd go by his apartment, and get him out of bed [laughs] — he'd wake up and roll over to the piano and start playing ... he would stop and show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he'd get his portfolio out show me the music... sometimes, we'd get just one tune a day. Maybe."

Monk's patience helped Coltrane grasp material unusual and refreshing. Where Davis had favored blues, ballads, and bebop workhorses, Monk's songbook of originals — "Epistrophy," "Ruby, My Dear," "Trinkle, Tinkle"—was riddled with strange melodic leaps and unexpected rhythmic shifts. It was challenging territory that intrigued the saxo­phonist and appealed to his sense of order. As Coltrane's playing reflected a love of musical logic, blowing solos based on repeated and reconfigured patterns, so the pianist's composi­tions revealed a passion for internal structure that followed precise and playful rules. Monk's structures laced with Coltrane's frenetic deliv­ery sounded a good match.

In Monk, Coltrane found "a musical architect of the highest order." In Coltrane, Monk found an analytical brother—a musician who shared in his intellectual approach and remained true to the sound and structure of his music. "Monk's music had been played already before Trane with different saxophonists, but I think Trane was more precise," pianist Tommy Flanagan once noted. "He was more careful about learn­ing things exactly like Monk meant."

It was July of '57 when the partnership went public. Monk's long-lost cabaret license had been renewed, and he began an extended resi­dency at 5 Cooper Square — with bassist Wilbur Ware, drummer Shadow Wilson, and his new student at his side. "As soon as he got the job at the Five Spot," Coltrane remembered, We went right in."
Even after the home study sessions, Coltrane still seemed — to one witness at least — unprepared for their live debut.

"When [Coltrane] played with Monk I was there every night I think," Steve Lacy told radio producer Steve Rowland. "It started out... very clumsy, very obscure, very maladroit, and then each night it got a little more relaxed." Coltrane had little choice but to find his place in the mix. He was the sole melody instrument on the bandstand.” "Yeah, I felt a little lonesome up there!" Coltrane later recalled with amusement.

Being the lone horn player supplied the saxophonist the chance to extend his solos further than ever before — as well as an opportunity to hear himself progress in a quartet setting (soon to become his favorite and most famous context). By the end of Monk's Five Spot run in December, "it got into a kind of security," Lacy reported. "Into a freedom and into a wild abandon. To watch that unfold was a revelation."
Equally revelatory — for generations who never witnessed Monk and Coltrane together— is the recently unearthed tape of their Nov­ember 29,1957 performance at Carnegie Hall.

Talk about a rare moment within an ail-too brief overlap! Coltrane was weeks away from rejoining Miles, with whom he would soon pur­sue modal pathways and record the master­piece Kind of Blue. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik had replaced Ware. In the mere 51 min­utes of the group's two sets that evening, one can glean the inevitability in the Monk-Coltrane union: their appetite for reinventing old with new, shifting rhythms (check "Sweet and Lovely"!). Their adoration of Art Tatum arpeggios. Their complementary solo styles — breathless vs. halting, fluid vs. staccato — and both melodically inventive to an extreme.

We may never know whether this music marked the pinnacle or merely a high point in their relationship. By all reports, it was one of many. What we can know in hearing these performances is that together they achieved a rare balance of precision and passion. Enough to propel the saxophonist on a journey to stellar regions, and to make 1957 a banner year for both.”

— ASHLEY KAHN, June 2005. Ashley Kahn is author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo Press) and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album (Viking).

The following video feature Thelonious, John, Ahmed and Shadow on Monk’s Epistrophy, the closing tune of the first set of the November 29, 1957 Carnegie Hall Concert.

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