San Francisco and Hackensack, New Jersey, are two locations immortalized by the late jazz pianist/composer/innovator Thelonious Monk. Palo Alto could have joined that elite list with the release of Monk's live "Palo Alto" album, which was originally supposed to come out Friday, July 31, on Impulse! Records. Unfortunately for jazz fans, a dispute between Monk's previous label and his estate has left the release indefinitely delayed as of this week.
The source of the recording is a concert produced by Palo Alto native Danny Scher back in 1968. The music, performed by the working quartet of Monk, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, double bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, is magical.
"They were on the road for years, and they were just a great band," said Zev Feldman, a co-producer of the album.
The show itself lasted -- or at least the bootleg of it -- lasted for a little around 47 minutes. Judging from the recording, the musicians on the bandstand had as good of a time as that afternoon’s audibly enthusiastic patrons. Monk had a reputation for sometime being either aloof or playful in concert, and he can be sounds as if he was in the latter mood on originals-turned-standards "Ruby, My Dear," "Well, You Needn’t," "Epistrophy" and a 14 minute version of the extra popular "Blue Monk."
The backstory for both the live event — and the subsequent album — is both charming and inspirational.
Now a music industry veteran of renown, at the time of the Monk concert, Scher was 16 and an ambitious Palo Alto High School student who had already presented performances at his school by pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi ("Linus & Lucy") and vocalist Jon Hendricks (ex-Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) as well as vibraphonist/bandleader Cal Tjader.
Scher already had two de facto mentors at the time: the late Herb Wong, jazz scholar/educator/producer and a longtime Menlo Park resident, and Darlene Chan, founder and inaugural director of the Berkeley Jazz Festival.
"And I said to one of them, 'You know, my two idols are Monk and Duke (Ellington)," Scher recalled, by phone from his home in the East Bay. "And they said, 'Why don't you call Monk? He's coming to town.'" (Scher would present Ellington in concert in collaboration with the California Youth Symphony, in which he was the principal timpanist and percussionist, soon after.)
Scher contacted Jules Colomby, Monk's manager, and secured a contract for an afternoon concert at Palo Alto High School while the bandleader was in San Francisco for a run at the Jazz Workshop club in North Beach. He enlisted the services of his older brother Les, whose love of jazz was his own gateway to the American art form, to serve as the band's driver.
"The ticket price was $2 for general admission and $1.50 for students. And even then, that was really cheap," Scher said. Worried about having an empty house — or, in his case, school auditorium — he knew he had to diversify his offerings.
He created a concert program and sold advertising slots to local businesses such as Dana Morgan's Music Store, the local travel agency his parents patronized, and the florist from whom he'd buy flowers for his mother's birthday.
"So if no one shows up, at least there's enough money to pay Monk," he explained.
(A physical copy of the program is was set to be included in the CD and vinyl versions of the release, and its cover was is also featured on a mug in the online Monk Store.)
The forward-thinking upperclassman also reckoned it would be wise to expand his potential audience beyond the city limits.
"I get posters made by the high-school graphics arts department, and I'm putting them up in East Palo Alto. And the police are telling me, 'Hey, kid! You better get out of here. It's not safe for you,'" he recalled. "This is a few months after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy got shot, and there was a lot of tension between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto," he continued. "And I told them, 'You know what? I'm going to be in bigger trouble if the show doesn't do well.'"
Some potential audience members were skeptical that Monk would actually show up to play at a high school not known for its diverse student body. So Scher told them to just come to campus and buy a ticket when they saw Monk enter the venue. As Les Scher drove into the Paly parking lot with the top of Larry Gales' contrabass sticking out of a rear window, "everyone who was waiting lines up and buys their ticket, and the show is great,'' Scher said
One of the school's janitors offered to record the concert in exchange for the honor of tuning the piano Monk would be playing. Scher has held onto the cassette tape, which he got digitized at the now-closed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, and had been negotiating with T.S. Monk, Thelonious' son and the manager of his father's estate, about its release. They came to an agreement on Monk's Centenary in 2017 — 10 days before the 49th anniversary of the concert.
With his concert-promoting instincts already honed in his mid-teens, Scher would go on to rise to the rank of vice president at Bill Graham Presents. In addition to developing and launching the Shoreline Amphitheatre, he also created and produced the New Orleans by the Bay festival at that Mountain View venue before retiring in 1999 after 24 years with BGP and would go on to become co-founder of DanSun Productions.
"I've produced thousands of concerts," Scher mused. Who would've thought something I did 52 years ago, when I was in high school, would get this much publicity? … But I suppose it's nice to have a feel-good story, especially given the times."
But the fairytale ending has been suspended — for now, at least.
"I received word that there was a dispute between the estate and Monk's previous label," Scher said during a phone conversation on Monday, July 27. So the release has been taken off of the schedule indefinitely "due to circumstances beyond the label's control," according to a statement by Impulse! Records. Co-producer Feldman was unable to provide any further information at this time.
"They're not saying it's delayed. They're saying we'll let you know if it's being released, not when," Scher said. "I've held onto this recording for 50 years. So I can hold onto it for another two or three decades."
Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at [email protected]