Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Recorded on November 29, 1957
Released on October 27, 2005
“In February, 2005, while thumbing through some VOA acetate tapes... 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” - Larry Applebaum (Library Of Congress Recording Lab Supervisor) (1)
Piano: Thelonious Monk, Tenor Saxophone: John Coltrane, Drums: Shadow Wilson, Bass: Ahmed Abdul Malik
John Coltrane (1926-1967) is a name to conjure with in jazz circles. He was the spiritual tenor master who re-invented the solo, placing it right in the centre of the music, the man who grew from being Miles Davis lead sideman on Kind of Blue to the soul behind A Love Supreme, the baton carrier of the avant-garde, responsible for the uncompromising Ascension. John Coltrane, the most imitated jazz saxophonist of the late 20th century. The man’s life has become a smoke saturated myth, right up to his early death of liver cancer in '67, a mere 40 years old.
It wasn’t always this way.
In April ‘57, Miles Davis had grown tired of his sideman’s heroin dependency, himself a recovered addict he required more discipline from his partners than Coltrane could provide. So, for the second time in a year and after 2 years of collaboration, Miles fired him from his quintet. Coltrane was a major sideman with massive technical skill, but he played tenor sax in a relatively traditional way, and had little voice of his own. Despondent, Coltrane retreated to his home state of Philadelphia to make peace with his addictions. Returning to New York, he was offered a gig at the newly re-opened Five Spot Cafe, a relaxed Jazz dive that had just moved to the corner of Cooper Square and St Mark’s Place after seeing its previous building demolished(2). The last gig it had seen before demolition was Charles Mingus’s big band, and in ‘57 they offered their first residency to The Thelonious Monk Quartet.
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) had been a jazz figure since the early ‘40’s and the days of bebop. His extremely percussive style, with its wide spaces and minimalism, had been mostly perfected by ‘44, but it took a long time for major recognition to come outside the community of musicians. In August ‘51 Monk suffered a major setback, when the vehicle he and Bud Powell were occupying was searched by the police, revealing narcotics(3). Desperate to nail Powell, the police leant on Monk to testify - he refused. In retaliation the police confiscated Monk’s New York City Cabaret Card, a vicious manoeuvre they would also pull on Charlie Parker. This trick left Monk unable to play live music anywhere that served liquor inside the city limits. Monk was forced into a period of intense composition with the occasional concert outside the city or in a theatre. The reopening of The Five Spot corresponded to his regaining of a Cabaret Card, and the residency led him to acquire a new band.
The seven month period at the Five Spot was to prove a pivotal episode in the careers of both artists. From here Monk returned to the forefront of New York Jazz, and was rapidly recognised as a virtuoso Jazz musician. For Coltrane the effect was more akin to a metamorphosis. The tentative sideman with occasional moments of outstanding ability on Davis’s Cookin' invented a soloing style that would come to be known as “Sheets of Sound”(4). The style, heavily influence by the melodic ideas of Davis and formed under the tutelage of Monk was unheard of, a chaotic medley of densely packed notes, based on arpeggios of three simultaneous chords. This technique allowed the soloist to jump from the lowest to the highest registers of his instrument extremely rapidly, giving saxophone playing a new dynamic, and allowing tonal explorations of a kind new to jazz.
Monk’s son T S Monk, seven at the time and living in the shadow of his doting father's musically driven life, recalls(5) that Coltrane would visit their house almost every day, an apartment so small that the piano lived in the kitchen/dining room. Monk would be continually mentoring Coltrane, never calling him “John”, always “Coltrane”; demanding he play more complex material, urging him to break away from Miles’ influence.
This vital alliance in both musicians’ careers was criminally under-recorded. In ‘58 a recording from relatively early within this period was released by Blue Note under the name “Live at the Five Spot”. The legend behind this recording being that Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, was bootlegging the concert and that it was not fully miked for recording. I haven’t heard it, sorry, but the word “tentative” always comes out to describe Coltrane’s approach in review, Monk’s material is complex and at first it must have proved taxing.
In November of that year, after playing together for 6 months and nearing the end of their relationship (Coltrane had got his own group together to record Blue Train that September, a record that would become his first major statement, making his name), the quartet were invited to play a benefit concert for the Morningside Community Centre at Carnegie Hall. Trane and Monk had been playing together long enough to know each others styles completely. The ticket price over the door was $2.00 - $3.95, for which the audience was graced to see(6) Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins, The full Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and, of course, Monk and ‘Trane.
At the end of ‘57 Coltrane left the Quartet, Blue Train was already selling well and he was on his way to becoming the maverick who would do so much to define Jazz in the ‘60s.
“The Voice of America was allowed to record performances at Carnegie Hall free of charge, without paying the hall or the musicians, as long as it broadcast only overseas; this was regarded as public diplomacy through music. Of course, some musicians would not consent to be recorded, which is probably why there is no Billie Holiday on the tape.” Michael Gray, Librarian and archivist at The Voice Of America(7)
The Library of Congress holds one of the biggest audio archives in the world, preserved in darkened, climate controlled rooms. Within this collection Larry Applebaum, studio engineer and Jazz specialist, was employed to sort through the 50 000 recording strong audio archives of the Voice Of America broadcaster. For the non-Americans, The Voice Of America is a state owned broadcaster similar to the BBC World Service. It is responsible for broadcasting a vast amount of music over the past 50 years, intended as audio diplomacy to the rest of the world.
Lewis Porter (A biographer of Coltrane, and a fanatic for the music) had enquired, years earlier as to whether a recording of the Carnegie date existed, although it had never been broadcast. The archive was massive, and the tapes badly indexed and old; the library gave him a negative. In Febuary 2005, In his methodical documenting Applebaum came upon a series of tapes titled “sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (#1)”(8), among them being a series labelled, simply, “T.Monk”.
Listening to this recording now, from the first note Applebaum must have been able to tell that was John Coltrane’s playing. It would have been one of those moments like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, to know that you hold in your hands the only copy of a recording of incomparable historical value. Applebaum, clearly a master of understatement, has said it “got his heart racing”(9).
From here, it was a rapid transition to mixing and CD release. By April 25th there was an article in the New York Times, titled “A Jazz Discovery Adds a New Note to the Historical Record”(7), which led T S Monk to contact his lawyer. Within months the legendary label Blue Note, responsible for early recordings by both stars, were pulled in to publish the record. Michael Cuscuna and T S Monk (A jazz musician himself and chairman of the Monk Institute) went to work to re-master the tape and produce a digital version. The CD was on the shelves by the end of October, and at the top of Jazz charts worldwide within days.(9)
“That's what Thelonious brought to the table for John Coltrane: The music that was the doorway to where jazz and the tenor saxophone were going to go.” T. S. Monk discussing the recording(10)
- Monk's Mood
- Crepuscle With Nellie
- Sweet and Lovely
- Blue Monk
- Epistrophy (incomplete)
After the myth, the review
It is unfortunately common with these lost and found classics for the sound quality to be patchy and rough. With Carnegie Hall’s famous acoustics and the Voice Of America’s equipment and crew, it shouldn’t be surprising, but it still takes a moment to realize how perfect a job this is. This could have been recorded yesterday.
All the pieces on this recording are Monk standards, but this isn’t to say this was restrictive to Coltrane. The best words for this recording are joyous and playful. After a couple of listens through it's clear that Coltrane has as much space as he can take, and he can take a lot. The concert starts off with Monk’s Mood, a beautiful duet of piano and sax that really sets the tone for the next hour. After this virtuoso demonstration of their technique, the band really begins to get down. Fast, complex, syncopated rhythms bounce around for the rest of the record. Monk always has a reputation for “playful” musicianship, and on this recording it is clear how much he is enjoying himself. On the riotous Evidence you can hear Monk littering the melody with off kilter notes and off time piano breaks, rhythmic landmines designed to inspire or derail the rest of the band.
This list of Monk standards show just how good a composer Monk was, each of these pieces can be sung along to like a perfect melody, but when you take them apart and look at the pieces, strange, dark tricks and rhythmic intricacies stand out and glitter. There are extra notes thrown in at the end, the sheer complexity of Epistrophy, the beautiful piano work of Crepuscule with Nellie. Monk was a master writer with a perfect sense of rhythm and harmonics.
The bass playing and drum work of Ahmed Abdul Malik and Shadow Wilson is just right for the job. The audio conspiracies bouncing between the two leads run off these guys like water, they will not be derailed, they've been playing with these bastards for months. The walking basslines drive up and down the pieces and Shadow Wilson really gets to show off his ride cymbal chops on Epistrophy.
For Coltrane’s playing it really is all here. Sheets of Sound shake out from Evidence, beautiful simplicity and melody comes out in Nutty, compared to this session most of his work with Miles Davis sounds hemmed in. He is completely free here and enjoying every second of playing Carnegie Hall. When Coltrane is really in his place, words fall to one side, it’s rich and alive and organic. The master soloist of A Love Supreme is right here, and he’s loving it.
Were this not a legendary performance, even if this was later in their careers, this would stand up as a first rate session by either Monk or Coltrane. With the two of them together, it’s historical significance, and the perfection of it’s playing, this recording is essential.
The record ends with Epistrophy again, a second version of the stand out track of the session, which they had used to clear the room at the end of their first set. After a minute and a half, it ends with a fadeout, The Voice Of America has stopped recording. This session still holds mysteries - we will never be able to see Monk’s face.