One night in L.A. a few years ago, John Beasley found himself occupying the “second keyboard” chair alongside Herbie Hancock, an artist who had always been one of his idols, during a concert tribute to Jaco Pastorius at the Hollywood Bowl.
“I think we were playing a long tune like Jaco’s ‘John and Mary,’” the pianist, arranger, and composer told me recently on a Zoom call from Stuttgart, Germany. “I’m sitting next to him, playing Hammond, and I see him getting lost in the music. And when Herbie gets lost, he gets more excited; he was playing the most amazing shit. He kinda looked at me and winked and said, ‘I’m totally lost!’ And he smiled.”
Beasley shook his head at the memory. “He was just going for it and not thinking.” It was, he said, “one of those lessons … that really led me to Monk. Sort of being lost as an arranger, in a way. Just put it out there and edit later. Let my ideas flow. Arrange like an improviser.”
Bald, bespectacled, and garrulous, Beasley has an energy and drive that make him seem at least a decade younger than his 60 years. Based in L.A., he’s been a musical Zelig: a sideman for Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard; an arranger and musician for numerous TV shows and movies (American Idol, the James Bond films Spectre and Skyfall); and an in-demand musical director for major touring acts like Steely Dan and events such as International Jazz Day and Jazz at the White House. He has recorded or toured with many of the world’s leading jazz and pop stars.
But he’s making his greatest mark as the leader—and improvisational arranger—of MONK’estra, a 16-piece big band with three albums and six Grammy nominations to its credit since 2016. (Two of those six nominations are for the 2020 Grammys; Beasley also got two nominations this year for his arranging and conducting work with vocalists Somi and Maria Mendes.) The band has been rapturously received, and its founder is now widely considered one of the foremost modern interpreters of Thelonious Monk.
In recent years, Monk tribute albums have proliferated. His complete works have been recorded by a quartet led by pianist Frank Kimbrough; Miles Okazaki and Pasquale Grasso have done similar Monk anthologies for solo guitar. There’s solo piano Monk, Latin Monk, and Brazilian Monk. But Beasley’s brand of big-band Monk sounds like no one else’s.
“Obviously we all love Monk,” said bassist/composer John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator since the early 1980s, “but pianists have a special feeling for him. John gets at the heart of Monk’s spirit, and he also puts his own thing in there. He’s able to infuse those arrangements with his experience, his mixture of all the things he loves, stylistically and sonically. I think what he’s doing is great.”
MONK’estra is less about the name on the sheet music than the spirit it embodies, Beasley explained. “It’s courage, audacity, fun; it’s danceable, grooving. Monk is so individual … T.S. Monk told me that [his father] wrote the songs to be interpreted in their own way.” That Beasley has done, over the course of three albums, taking liberties with forms and tempos while capturing the joy, the catchy riffs, the defiant quirkiness of the originals.
His latest album, MONK’estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue), expands the MONK’estra concept to feature eight of his own compositions, idiosyncratic takes on Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, and four new Monk interpretations. A remarkable roster of longtime collaborators is along for the ride: Patitucci, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, organist Joey DeFrancesco, harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, legendary flutist Hubert Laws, and classical baritone Jubilant Sykes, who sings Ellington’s stirring “Come Sunday.” You hear not only Monk but echoes of the Basie and Ellington bands and arrangers like Neal Hefti and Thad Jones, as well as influences from Afro-Latin jazz, funk, fusion, and hip-hop. The album crackles with excitement, humor, and invention.
Beasley offers the listener variety by mixing up the ensembles. About half the record is the full band; a septet drawn from the larger group features just four horns, and other tracks employ a trio (with Patitucci and Colaiuta), a quartet, or a quintet. It’s also the first MONK’estra CD to put the spotlight back on Beasley the pianist. In the past, his self-assured, Herbie-influenced playing has often taken a back seat, but here the piano is front and center.
“Jimmy Heath told me, ‘The swing is already built into Monk’s music.’ There’s a groove written into every song, so it lends itself to a lot of different interpretations.”
Long known within the L.A. jazz community as “Killer Beas” or just “Beas,” Beasley was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of two professional musicians. He spent much of his childhood in Denton, Texas, where his father, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, taught bassoon at the University of North Texas and performed with the Dallas and Fort Worth Symphonies; his mother, a talented euphonium player, taught band in the local junior high school.
By age 12, he was hooked on jazz. He won an arranging scholarship to the Stan Kenton Band Camp at 14 and was a working jazz musician by 15. His father taught him orchestration. He knew early on that he wanted to be an arranger: “I was a very geeky kid in Denton, playing the records and pretending I was playing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.”
When he was in junior high, his parents decided to relocate to the L.A. area. He had no problem with the move: “Are you kidding me? I was like, holy shit, Quincy Jones lives there! There were so many clubs I could go to and see these guys. [Once there,] I started working immediately with older guys. It was super-good for me.” He couldn’t wait to get out of high school.
Beasley was accepted by Juilliard at 17—as an oboist—but opted to stay in L.A. and play jazz instead, with a growing cohort of older musicians including bassist John B. Williams, drummer Ralph Penland, saxophonist Joe Farrell, and drummer John Guerin. In one of his first big breaks, Hubert Laws hired him and Patitucci to play a concert at Carnegie Hall; they were both about 20. Patitucci recalls his young friend: “He was already playing and writing really strong. His orchestration chops were happening. He was ahead of most of the other young piano players I knew. And he had a really good time feeling. He could groove, whether it was straight-ahead, Brazilian, or funk. He also jumped into the whole synth thing, and got really good at that. He had a big sonic palette.”
That same year, Sérgio Mendes hired Beasley as a keyboardist for his road band. He remembered Mendes taking him keyboard shopping in L.A. for a Roland Jupiter-8. “Sérgio gave me a cassette of Ivan Lins playing his tunes in Sérgio’s living room in Niterói [near Rio]. He said, ‘Okay, kid, I want you to learn these tunes, and I want these voicings, and I want you to write charts for them.’ I was working on a cruise ship at the time, but during the day I was falling in love with Lins and [fellow Brazilian composer] Edu Lobo; it was blowing my mind. I transcribe all these tunes and bring them back to Sérgio. And he says, ‘Oh, thanks, kid, I don’t read music—that’s for you.’ So he paid me to dive deep into Brazilian harmony. I think it was 50 bucks.”
Playing with Mendes “helped me grow as a bandleader, because after a while I became the de facto musical director.” As such, he rehearsed the band and introduced Mendes to several singers, including a young Dianne Reeves and Siedah Garrett, who joined the band.
Beasley met Freddie Hubbard in 1983. “[Saxophonist] Bob Sheppard [now a member of MONK’estra] recommended me … I had all of Freddie’s records. When I was in junior high, I wore out his albums, and I saw the band a lot in L.A.
“The first gig was in San Francisco. There was no rehearsal, of course. I could tell that Freddie was checking me out. I knew how intense he could be. He was great in that, if you didn’t know a tune, particularly a ballad, he would just start playing. If I didn’t know it, it was time to man up, old-school, and learn it on the gig. It was great for me. He’d come up behind me and look over my shoulder—a baptism by fire. I wasn’t in New York, but this was my New York.”
It was 1989 when Beasley’s friend Vince Wilburn Jr., a drummer and Miles Davis’ nephew, told him he should make him a tape because Miles “might be looking for somebody. So I went home, put my Alesis HR-16 drum machine on, and my synths, and I just did what I did on the gig, improvising to those beats. I gave the cassette to Vince, then I put it out of my mind.”
When Miles called a couple of months later, Beasley wasn’t home. His first wife called him at the studio and said Miles had called. “I told her, ‘Nah, someone is messing with me,’ but I called the number, and it was him. He said, ‘Yeah, man, you’re a bad motherfucker. I want you to join the band.’ And I said, ‘Really, are you sure?’” He laughed at the memory. “Some wimpy shit like that. And he said, ‘Yeah, come on out.’”
At the time, he was doing a session for a Rickie Lee Jones album, with Walter Becker producing. “I was actually torn,” he said. “My wife was pregnant; we had just bought a house. I told Walter about it and he said, ‘Well, you gotta go!’ They bought me a magnum of champagne.” Soon after, Beasley flew to New York for a two-week rehearsal.
Over the next year, he learned many things. “Miles would say short little phrases,” he recalled, “and you’d have to figure out for yourself what he really wanted.” For instance, Miles once told him never to use his left hand when soloing. He had to ponder that.
“After a while I started thinking, ‘Okay, he wants more space.’ Piano players have two hands, so they’re always reacting to their own playing. If you’re always reacting to your right hand, you’re acting like a guitar player or a drummer or a bass player … so stop doing that and allow somebody else to react. It leaves more space—which was his thing.”
Becker, meanwhile, got an imprint with Windham Hill Records, signed Beasley, and produced his first two albums. “One of the smartest guys I’ve ever known,” Beasley said. “I began to appreciate his contributions to Steely Dan—all the ‘left turns.’ And his stamina in the studio was astounding.”
The association with Becker proved fruitful. “Later he would fly me to Hawaii, where he lived, to work on his solo album 11 Tracks of Whack,” with Donald Fagen co-producing. “Those guys together, when they got into their witty thing, I’d have to stand back and watch. When they got back together in ‘94, they called me in to play piano and Rhodes. Then later, for Steely Dan’s ‘Art Crimes’ tour, they hired me as musical director to help rehearse the band.”
During the ’90s, Beasley networked his way into steady employment within Hollywood’s television and film industries. He played and composed for countless TV show soundtracks, including Cheers and Family Ties, as well as a list of movies that includes The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather Part III, and Finding Nemo, getting familiar with film composers like Thomas Newman, Dave Grusin, and Alan Silvestri. He also became head arranger for American Idol, working with musical director Rickey Minor from the show’s inception in 2002. “Rickey’s always been in my corner. I learned a lot about being an MD from him, especially for TV. He began recommending me for other shows he couldn’t do. I got my TV chops, which led to having chops for International Jazz Day, ultimately.”
Beasley first got to know Herbie Hancock when, one summer in the ’90s, he and Patitucci toured with the VSOP Quintet, the supergroup consisting of Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. “I spent 10 days opening up for those guys in France. We got our heads handed to us every night. Watching them play—they would be lost, without panicking, play through it …” He trailed off, in wonderment.
“Amazingly, [Hancock]’s a friend now,” he mused. “Around 10 years ago, before International Jazz Day started, I was a bit lost in the jazz world. But Jazz Day helped me reconnect with all these great musicians.” Since 2012 he’s been MD for the Hancock-led, UN-sponsored event, which has taken him all over the world, including the Obama White House in 2016, where he oversaw the televised all-star event Jazz at the White House, which earned him an Emmy nomination.
At one point during the filming in DC, there was a delay caused by a security breach. “They took the whole cast—Wayne, Herbie, Pat Metheny, Chick, they were all there—into a parking lot for an hour. It was like a party, everybody was taking photos—almost like the photo ‘A Great Day in Harlem.’”
LET’S COOL ONE
Beasley got the idea for MONK’estra in 2015, during the last year of his stint with American Idol. He was learning Sibelius (the music composition software) and, as an experiment, tried arranging Monk’s “Epistrophy.” “I stretched out the melody, then I got the idea of doing it with an Afro-Cuban groove. I stopped the time with fermatas; I changed the form. Then I realized, man, Monk’s music is super-pliable!”
After writing a second Monk arrangement, he assembled a group of friends at the Musicians’ Union in L.A. to run through them. “After that I did a few more Monk tunes, including ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ and ‘Skippy.’” For their first gig at L.A.’s Blue Whale club, they only had five tunes, repeating them over two sets. “But people freaked out,” he said, “so I kept writing.”
Beasley put up the money for the band’s first recording session. “Then we shopped those six tunes to record companies. Mack Avenue signed us to three records. The hip thing they did was to release the first record in 2016, a year before Monk’s centennial. They also helped hook me up with [agent] Myles Weinstein, and we played 35 dates the first year.” His wife, Lorna Chiu, manages the band. “None of this would have happened without her,” he said.
Beasley believes that Monk is like Bach: “They both sound great at any tempo. With Bach, it’s just so well thought-out, mathematical, astounding. To me, he is heavier harmonically than Mozart. With Monk, it’s his rhythmic approach to writing—the riffiness of it lends itself to a lot of different tempos and grooves. Jimmy Heath told me, ‘The swing is already built into Monk’s music.’ There’s a groove written into every song, so it lends itself to a lot of different interpretations.”
“[Freddie Hubbard] would come up behind me and look over my shoulder—a baptism by fire. I wasn’t in New York, but this was my New York.”
Beyond MONK’estra, and despite the pandemic, Beasley is pushing ahead with other projects. In November, he got special permission from the German government to travel to Stuttgart to work with the SWR Big Band, a string section, and Swedish saxophonist/orchestrator Magnus Lindgren on “Bird Lives @ 100,” an album, video, and—once the pandemic subsides—an international tour. “Our idea is to take Bird’s interest in classical music—he wanted to study with Varèse in Paris—and ask, ‘What would Bird be like right now?’” He has also orchestrated and arranged a score by Thomas Newman for Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, which debuted in December on HBO Max. The movie, which stars Meryl Streep and takes place aboard the Queen Mary 2, features MONK’estra and a string section.
Even though Beasley the pianist re-emerges in a major way on the latest MONK’estra album, MONK’estra itself has become, in a sense, his main instrument. He keeps it loose, interpreting the tunes differently every night. “I don’t even write out ‘tenor solo,’ for instance. I’ll just tell the band to learn the tune, then on the gig I’ll point to whoever’s hot.” It’s the same improvisatory approach, the aversion to overthinking, that he learned years ago from Herbie.
Asked to place MONK’estra in the big-band continuum, from the swing era to the present, Beasley cited the band’s versatility and familiarity with every subgenre of jazz. “I always thought we could be the big band at the festivals that could not only play our music but also back up the big singers of the era, just like Ellington and Count Basie did,” he said. “It may not be for me to say, but … it would be amazing if we could even be thought of in the same breath as some of those guys.”