52 Years Ago, Thelonious Monk Played a High School. Now Everyone Can Hear It.

Historians in the News
tags: segregation, California, music, jazz

In the late 1960s, a precocious student named Danny Scher was the elected social commissioner at Palo Alto High School in Northern California. His duties included organizing dances and assemblies, but Mr. Scher, who grew up playing in jazz bands, wanted jazz musicians to perform at the school, too. He convinced the vibraphonist Cal Tjader, the singer Jon Hendricks and the pianist Vince Guaraldi (of “Peanuts” fame) to play separate gigs in the school’s spacious auditorium. Then he turned his attention to his idol, Thelonious Monk.

Monk, a pianist, was more than a decade past his most famous recordings and near the end of an unfruitful run at Columbia Records when his manager got the request from Mr. Scher. The jazz titan agreed to perform at the school on Sunday, Oct. 27, 1968. He was already scheduled to be in the area for a three-week stint at the Jazz Workshop, a club in San Francisco, so Mr. Scher had his older brother Les drive there and pick up the pianist and his band. There were no plans to preserve the one-off concert, but a school janitor asked Mr. Scher whether he could record the show if he tuned the piano.

Now, 52 years later, Impulse! Records and Legacy Recordings are releasing it as an album called “Palo Alto” that captures the 47-minute concert in full. The “Palo Alto” recording had collected dust in the attic of Mr. Scher’s family home until he contacted Monk’s son — the jazz drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk — about releasing it. Digitally restored and widely available for the first time on Friday, “Palo Alto” captures a band hitting a high note, even as Monk battled personal and professional turmoil.

Monk and his touring band — the drummer Ben Riley, the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and the bassist Larry Gales — performed in Palo Alto as the city, like much of the United States, was gripped by tension. America was rocked by the war in Vietnam and the shooting deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Locally, there was friction between residents of the mostly white Palo Alto and the mostly Black East Palo Alto, an unincorporated area with high unemployment rates. The residents of East Palo Alto didn’t have voting power to govern their own town, and by 1968, local leaders established schools and other institutions to educate residents about Black culture.

The pressure came to a head in 1968, when a contingent of younger East Palo Alto residents started a campaign to rename the city “Nairobi,” after the capital of Kenya. The Monk gig happened a week before the name change was up for a vote before the East Palo Alto Municipal Council. (It was defeated by a margin of two to one.)

In a Zoom interview, Mr. Scher said he was warned by the police department in East Palo Alto to not post fliers advertising the show there. “Wherever I saw a poster that said, ‘Vote yes on Nairobi,’ I’d put up an ad, ‘Come and see Thelonious Monk at Palo Alto High School,’” he said. “The police would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, kid. Hey, white boy, this is not really a cool place for you to be, given what’s going on. You’re going to get in trouble here. This isn’t cool.’”

But Mr. Scher had a show to promote: “I’ve got to sell tickets, and if you think I’m in trouble by being here, I’ll be in even more trouble if the show doesn’t do well.”

Read entire article at New York Times