Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Major Anniversary

This morning Weekend Edition Saturday presented a story about a major 50-year anniversary in the history of jazz. The story was filed by Sara Fishko and introduced as follows:

Fifty years ago Saturday night, jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk stepped onto the stage of New York's Town Hall theater with nine other musicians to perform new arrangements of some of his best-known tunes. It was Monk's first time as a headliner in a concert hall, and it was an event in the jazz world.

The concert has become the stuff of jazz lore. This week, two groups of younger players took the same stage for tribute concerts.

This was a fascinating way to begin the day, particularly because it included audio recordings of Monk working with Hall Overton to prepare arrangements for the occasion that were truly extraordinary. Just as extraordinary is the fact that all of those working sessions were captured on tape by Overton's neighbor, W. Eugene Smith and are now being digitized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

More disappointing is that Fishko never bothered to say who those "two groups of younger players" were. Fortunately, however, this anniversary is important enough to have its own Web site, from which we can learn that the concerts were organized by Charles Tolliver (on February 26) and Jason Moran (on February 27). The Tolliver performance is now available through the NPR Web site, courtesy of WNYC. As of this writing, the Moran performance does not appear to be similarly available.

The recording of the original concert was produced by Orrin Keepnews for Riverside and is therefore in the CD collection, Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings. It is worth noting that the concert actually began with a quartet with Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. After three numbers ("In Walked Bud," "Blue Monk," and "Rhythm-a-ning") they were joined by Donald Byrd (trumpet), Eddie Bert (trombone), Robert Northern (French horn), Phil Woods (alto), Pepper Adams (baritone), and Jay McAlister (tuba). As the NPR broadcast observed, the result was a somewhat uncanny exercise in orchestrating Monk's very piano sound, not the sort of thing one expects of an arrangement but clearly what Monk had in mind. The only problem with this morning's broadcast is that one did not hear enough of the actual music, so it is good that one can turn to other sources to appreciate what really makes this anniversary significant.

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