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Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane: Evidence

Thelonious Monk and Nellie Monk at their home with John Coltrane in the late 1950s. (Courtesy of T.S. Monk)
Thelonious Monk and Nellie Monk at their home with John Coltrane in the late 1950s. (Courtesy of T.S. Monk)
Thelonious Monk
L to R: Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Monk and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot, 1957.
A flyer for the Carnegie Hall concert
A newspaper ad for the Carnegie Hall concert
A page from the concert's program

It’s not quite the Lost Ark of the Covenant, but for some time researchers had been aware of the possibility of a long-lost recording featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. In the December 26, 1957, issue of Down Beat there was notice that stated, “Willis Conover and the Voice of America were scheduled to invade Carnegie Hall late in November” to broadcast a jazz concert. Voice of America, the U.S. government shortwave-radio service that broadcasts news and music overseas, would sometimes feature concert recordings that were not aired in the U.S.

In 1996, while doing research for my book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I found an advertisement in the New York Amsterdam News (a venerable black newspaper) that listed that VOA concert. With the date now in hand-Friday, November 29, 1957-I contacted the Library of Congress, which owns all the VOA tapes. Unfortunately, the LOC had no record of a VOA recording made at Carnegie Hall on 11/29/57, but staffers allowed that as they continued to organize and catalog this huge collection, it might indeed turn up-if it was there at all.

I followed up with the LOC every now and then, but there was nothing-until February 2005. That’s when I received an email from the agency’s jazz specialist, Larry Appelbaum, saying that he’d discovered it. As Appelbaum explains:

“In 1963 the Library of Congress acquired approximately 50,000 tapes and discs of cultural programming, including jazz, from the Voice of America. In recent years, the Library has embarked on a project to systematically process, catalog and digitally preserve this collection. As the supervisor of the Library’s Magnetic Recording Laboratory, I was thumbing through some tapes awaiting digitization in early 2005 when I noticed eight 10-inch acetate reels of tape labeled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957.’ I examined the reels and noticed one of the tape boxes had a hand-written note on the back that said ‘T. Monk’ with some song titles. When we played the tape I recognized the sound of John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone with Monk’s quartet and my heart started racing. The identification of the players was confirmed when I heard Willis Conover’s M.C. announcements on the tapes.”

Conover was the M.C. at the concert as well as the host of the radio program. But as it turns out, the concert was most likely never broadcast-or at least there is no evidence that it was-another reason that no tapes were found until now. Even before I heard the music I e-mailed producer Michael Cuscuna (Mosaic, Blue Note) to see about issuing this material.

His response was classic: “Holy shit!”

The VOA performance has now been issued as Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: 1957 Concert on CD by Blue Note/Thelonious Records and on 200-gram vinyl by Mosaic. (Full disclosure: I am one of five liner-note writers for this release.)

The recording fully lives up to expectations-in fact, Cuscuna feels that it exceeds them: “It’s amazing enough to find out about something from a group this important that existed only for a small slice of time. Then to find it is miracle No. 1-to find it in good quality is miracle No. 2,” he says. “But then to have the performance be beyond what any devotee of Monk and Coltrane could have wished for is absolutely extraordinary. I think it’s the best recorded Monk on the best piano he ever played, and his best articulated performance as a pianist. And the structure of the concert setting with the 25-minute sets really forced Coltrane to telescope his improvisations-it’s very intense and very focused. So all the conditions just fell into place to make this a remarkable document in both of their careers.”

The collaboration between John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk was a high point of both of their lives. Coltrane had joined Monk after being fired by Miles Davis, and it was during this period with the pianist that he turned his life and his music around.

Coltrane had initially joined the Davis quintet at the Anchors Inn club in Baltimore, for a gig beginning Wednesday, September 28, 1955; Naima came down on the weekend and she and John married there, now that he’d “made it.” There was a mood of celebration-this was Trane’s big break. Until then, he’d been on radio broadcasts with Dizzy Gillespie and had soloed on 78-rpm recordings with blues singer Billy Valentine, but he’d only had one recorded solo on which he was identified, “We Love to Boogie” with Gillespie. But since almost nobody was recording radio broadcasts at home, and most 78-rpm recordings didn’t list personnel, Coltrane didn’t exist as far as the general public was concerned.

Born September 23, 1926, Coltrane was only a few months younger than Davis, but the trumpeter had been recording with all the jazz greats since 1945. Plus, regardless of their closeness in age, Davis was more musically together than the saxophonist. Coltrane acknowledged that in 1961 to Kitty Grime in the British Jazz News: “I felt I was lacking in general musicianship. I had all kinds of technical problems-for example, I didn’t have the right mouthpiece-and I hadn’t the necessary harmonic understanding. I am quite ashamed of those early records I made with Miles. Why he picked me, I don’t know.”

If Coltrane was inconsistent, it had to be partly due to his struggle with heroin, which he’d become addicted to around 1948. Few people realize that Coltrane was also an alcoholic during this time. He quit several times, but only for a week or so. Davis said in his autobiography, “He’d be playing in clothes that looked like he had slept in them for days, all wrinkled up and dirty and shit. Then, he’d be standing up there when he wasn’t nodding-picking his nose and sometimes eating it.”

In April 1957, at the end of a Cafe Bohemia engagement, Davis fired Coltrane. As Down Beat reported (May 30, 1957):

“Miles Davis has broken up his quintet. Davis explains that he has been increasingly dissatisfied at the conduct of two of the members of his combo. He walked off a Baltimore date toward the beginning of a week stay, and then was fired along with his band by the owner of Club [sic] Bohemia in New York for leaving at 2 a.m. one morning during the first week of a long booking. Miles’ story is that two of his men were not in optimum playing condition, and he didn’t want to be held responsible by the audience for what they were doing onstand.” (The other musician was reportedly “Philly” Joe Jones.)

Coltrane didn’t stay home and sulk. In fact, it seems that he had already been making plans to go off on his own. On April 9 Coltrane had signed a contract with Prestige that called for three LPs as a leader per year (with the saxophonist receiving an advance payment of $300 for each LP) and some 45-rpm singles. He also formed his own group and retained a manager. Meanwhile, Coltrane had been rehearsing informally with Monk, and even recorded “Monk’s Mood” with the pianist on April 16.

During this period Coltrane was trying to quit heroin and alcohol for good. His friends and family helped him go “cold turkey” over a period of one or two weeks, probably in May 1957. Although it has been said that he stayed home the whole time, John Glenn, a Philadelphia saxophonist, recalls that while Coltrane did stay home all day he was gigging nightly at the Red Rooster-with McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, among others. In a taped interview with August Blume from 1958, Coltrane talked about this period:

Coltrane: …I made a decision, myself, that’s when I stopped drinking and all that shit. I was able to play better right then.

Blume: Did you used to drink heavily?

Coltrane: Yes. [Pause] So by the time that [Monk] started the group I’d stopped drinking. Found I could-that helped me in all kinds of ways when I stopped drinking; I could play better and think better.

This transformation was more than a decision to improve his health and keep his career on track. As the saxophonist once put it, rather glibly, he had made up his mind to “get some fun out of life for a change.” But Coltrane, who had been studying religion and philosophy, also felt that the experience had a religious aspect. He would later refer to this experience in the liner notes to his album A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” He told Ralph Gleason in an early-’60s interview, “I went through a personal crisis, and I came out of it. I felt so fortunate to have come through it successfully that all I wanted to do, if I could, would be to play music that would make people happy.” In 1958 Coltrane told Down Beat’s Ira Gitler that his code was, “Live cleanly…. Do right…. You can improve as a player by improving as a person. It’s a duty we owe to ourselves.”

The saxophonist had lived in Philadelphia since 1943, but after his first LP as a leader, Coltrane, was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s home studio in Hackensack, N.J., on May 31, 1957, he stayed at the Alvin Hotel near 52nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naima and her daughter Saeeda (aka Syeeda) joined him there on August 10, and on August 23 the Coltrane family moved into its first New York City apartment, on West 103rd Street and Amsterdam, near Central Park West. Now that he was based in Manhattan, the saxophonist could hang out regularly with Monk. Coltrane told Blume that he had initiated the contact:

“I liked [‘Monk’s Mood’] so well I told him that I wanted to learn it, so he invited me around, and that’s when I started learning his tunes. I’d go by his apartment and I’d get him out of bed maybe. And then he’d wake up and go to the piano and start playing. He’d play anything, maybe just one of his tunes. He’d start playing it and he’d look at me, and so I’d get my horn and start trying to find what he’s playing. And he’d continue to play over and over and over and over-and I’d get this part. And next time he’d go over it I’d get another part. And he’d stop to show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he’d get his portfolio out and show me the music-he’s got all of them written and I’d read it and learn it. He’d rather a guy learn without reading because that way you feel it better. And so when I almost had the tune down, then he would leave me with it. He’d leave me to practice it alone, and he’d go out somewhere, maybe he’d go to the store or go back to bed or something. And I’d just stay there and run over the tune. [When] I had it pretty well, then I’d call him and we’d play it down together. And sometimes we’d just get one tune a day.”

Soon, Monk asked Coltrane to join his band at the Five Spot at 5 Cooper Square, near Cooper Union in the East Village, where the pianist had been playing with his trio since July 4, 1957. He offered Coltrane $100 a week to join him beginning July 18, and the saxophonist was thrilled. He loved working with Davis and had ultimate respect for him, but-bottom line-Coltrane liked Monk better as a person. Coltrane found Davis to be personally distant. As he explained to French journalist Francois Postif for the January 1962 issue of Jazz Hot:

“Miles is a strange guy. He doesn’t talk much and he rarely discusses music. You always have the impression that he’s in a bad mood, and that what concerns others doesn’t interest him or move him. And if you ask him something about music, you never know how he’s going to take it. Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles: He talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he’ll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you.”

The Monk quartet with Coltrane and drummer Shadow Wilson stayed at the Five Spot for most of the remainder of 1957. At first Wilbur Ware was on bass, but when he did not show up at the Five Spot on the night of August 13th, Ahmed Abdul-Malik was hired as his permanent replacement. The quartet quickly became legendary. J. J. Johnson, the magnificent trombonist and composer, told Down Beat in 1961, “Since Charlie Parker, the most electrifying sound that I’ve heard in contemporary jazz was Coltrane playing with Monk at the Five Spot a couple of years ago. It was incredible, like Diz and Bird”-both of whom he’d worked with. Pianist Bud Powell was so impressed that he attended four nights in a row.

Peter Keepnews, son of legendary jazz producer Orrin and a writer and researcher in his own right, has recently returned to work on his much anticipated biography of Monk. He says: “The Five Spot engagement of 1957 was not only the turning point in Monk’s career; it was probably the most important gig he ever played. Monk had been stripped of his cabaret card after a questionable drug bust in 1951. The commonly accepted notion, repeated in countless books and articles, is that being without a card meant he was not allowed to work anywhere in New York. That’s not exactly true, but the absence of his card did severely restrict Monk’s employability by making it illegal for any of the high-profile New York nightclubs to employ him, except for the occasional one- or two-night stand, until he got his card back in 1957. And he might not have been able to find that much work in those years even with his card, because of the widespread idea that his music was too inaccessible even for lovers of modern jazz.

“Nonetheless, he did have a loyal following,” Keepnews continues, “which came out in force as soon as Monk’s card was restored and the Termini brothers booked him into their unprepossessing Bowery bar. It was Monk’s first extended nightclub engagement outside Harlem, and it transformed him almost instantly from a shadowy, semimythic figure into a flesh-and-blood performer-and an amazing one at that, with a stunning quartet.

“At the Five Spot, his audience quickly grew,” Keepnews says, “from the hard-core aficionados to everyone who wanted to be where the action was-including musicians, poets, painters, hipsters, would-be hipsters and hordes of the merely curious. At the age of 39, Monk became an acknowledged jazz heavyweight, virtually overnight. And he never looked back.”

The three Riverside studio recordings from the Five Spot period-“Ruby, My Dear,” “Trinkle Tinkle” and “Nutty”-are undated but were made when Ware was still on bass, thus before August 13, 1957. (There are two additional, undated live tracks in circulation-“Nutty” and “Ruby, My Dear”-available at, under “Webcasts.” They are likely from the Five Spot.) Coltrane’s playing is dramatically different from that of the preceding months-incredibly more virtuosic, authoritative and experimental. Coltrane credited Monk with providing the proper setting for his musical improvement, telling Blume:

“I learned a lot with him. I learned to watch little things. He’s just a good musician, man-if you work with a guy who watches the finer points of things, it kind of makes you try to watch the finer points sometimes. Little things mean so much in music, like in everything else. Like the way you build a house, starting with those little things. You get the little things together and then the whole structure will stand up.”

In a 1960 Down Beat article called “Coltrane on Coltrane,” the saxophonist wrote, “Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way-through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.

“[Monk] also got me into the habit of playing long solos on his pieces,” Coltrane wrote, “playing the same piece for a long time to find new conceptions of solos. It got so I would go as far as possible on one phrase until I ran out of ideas. The harmonies got to be an obsession for me.”

The Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert on November 29, 1957, was a benefit for the Morningside Community Center, a social-service organization for the Morningside Heights neighborhood (near Columbia University) that operated at least from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Among other things, the center was involved with the early years of Operation Crossroads Africa, a program, founded in 1957 and still ongoing, that brings volunteers to do needed work in African countries every summer.

Leading lights of the musical community turned out to play at the two shows, which differed in the order of events, and not all musicians performed during both concerts. In addition to the Monk quartet, audiences enjoyed the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra with Lee Morgan and Benny Golson; Ray Charles plus a sextet featuring David “Fathead” Newman, and Ed Blackwell on drums; the Zoot Sims Quartet with Mose Allison on piano (soon to be a well known singer-songwriter) and guest Chet Baker; one of the first gigs as a leader for Sonny Rollins, in a trio with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis; and Billie Holiday (the only who was not recorded, probably because of contract issues).

As can be heard on Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: 1957 Concert, Monk plays in a particularly virtuosic manner-this would be a good one to play for those who say he had no chops. Trane’s tone is captured beautifully, and one can hear the ambience of the hall. I like the contrast between the first show (“Monk’s Mood,” “Evidence,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Nutty,” “Epistrophy”) and the late show (“Bye-Ya,” “Sweet & Lovely,” “Blue Monk” and an incomplete version of “Epistrophy”). You can hear by the applause that there is a smaller audience at the midnight show, and the quartet stretches out with longer solos. (There are no bass or drum solos in either set, to keep things within the allotted time.)

Robin Kelley, professor of African American studies and anthropology at Columbia University, will soon publish Thelonious: A Life, a major full-length biography of Monk. He writes in the liner notes to the new CD:

“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 ‘strolls’ 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.

“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 B-flat, a major third below). This changes the sonority significantly, setting up a different kind of exploration of the blues.”

As for Coltrane, he double-times during much of his solos at Carnegie Hall, in the style that Ira Gitler dubbed “sheets of sound.” But by the time of the 1958 private recording that was released as Discovery! Live at the Five Spot (Blue Note, 1992), captured almost a year after the Carnegie Hall performance, Coltrane is already starting to use more of a variety of approaches as he begins to move away from his sheets-of-sound phase.

Discovery! was originally assumed to be from 1957. But soon after its release, Peter Keepnews found that Monk and Trane had had a one-night reunion at the Five Spot on September 11, 1958. For several reasons, it makes sense that Discovery! Live at the Five Spot is from this date. For one thing, it helps explain why drummer Roy Haynes can be heard on the recording, as identified by Michael Cuscuna; it was difficult to justify Haynes’ presence in 1957 when he was busy touring with Sarah Vaughan, whereas in 1958 he was Monk’s regular drummer. It also helps explain why Coltrane brought a tape recorder to the reunion show and put Naima in charge of it. He told Postif in 1961 that he had wanted a tape of himself with Monk as a souvenir, and finally made one. He could have been referring to this belated chance to get the recording he wanted. “I listen to that on occasion,” he said, “and I feel a little nostalgic!”

So while the 1958 date is not absolutely proven, it makes good sense. It makes musical sense, too. Compare for example “Epistrophy,” the band’s theme, which appears on Discovery! and the first version on the Carnegie Hall recording: At the Five Spot, Haynes’ drumming is soloistic and varied, and full of crashes and bops behind Coltrane’s solo, which is poised and uses no double-time. The Carnegie Hall CD’s initial take on the tune is much slower; Wilson does a lively double-time during the A section (like Haynes, so it’s probably part of the arrangement), then behind Trane he keeps the hi-hat on 2 and 4 while Trane double-times for almost his entire solo. Wilson splashes and fills at times but overall concentrates on the groove-which is a fine approach.

Nellie Monk told me that after the Five Spot engagement, she didn’t recall much further contact between Coltrane and Monk, socially or otherwise, but they did play several times on double bills in the 1960s. She also said that in 1963, when they brought their groups to San Francisco and San Jose, Coltrane sat in with Monk’s group on at least one occasion.

Despite his love of Monk and his music, Coltrane was intent on moving on by the end of 1957. At the beginning of 1958, while Monk was on a short hiatus from performing, Miles Davis accepted, even welcomed, Coltrane back into his group. And this time Davis wanted to hold on to him.

LOC Treasures

It truly is amazing when one is certain that all the leads have been exhausted and a recording like Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: 1957 Concert turns up. There may not be any more Monk and Trane tapes, but there are many other treasures to be mined, says the Library of Congress’ Larry Appelbaum:

“There are many important unreleased performances of jazz, classical, popular and traditional music in the VOA collection, including tapes from the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Washington, D.C., International Jazz Festival in 1962. We’ve also got quite a few interviews that Willis Conover did with Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and many others.”

And that’s only in the VOA collection. There are plenty of other delights in the Library of Congress. “It’s a pretty staggering collection,” Appelbaum says. “As far as jazz goes, there are a lot of important performances in the NBC Radio collection, the WOR collection and the Armed Forces Radio Service collection. In addition, we have the private tape collections of Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton and Billy Taylor as well as Jerry Valburn’s Duke Ellington collection and the Robert Altschuler collection. And these are just a part of the recorded-sound collections at the Library. We’ve also got an extraordinary collection of film and videotape, not to mention the collections of the Library’s music division and the archive of folk song.”

That gets me thinking-what about another “missing treasure”? The TV broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium in October 1950 that featured solo Art Tatum (of whom only four film clips have ever been found) and the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet-with Coltrane and Jimmy Heath. It also featured trumpeter Ray Anthony’s big band and Helen Forrest. (I read about it in a black newspaper of the day.) I’ve given up on this one, and noted film experts have drawn blanks-but if anyone out there has any leads….

To find out more, explore the Library’s Web site at Note: One may make appointments to listen at the Library, but no copies are released without permission of the musicians’ estates. Originally Published