9. Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane – Nov. 29, 1957 – Carnegie Hall
The 2005 issue of these two stupendous sets from Carnegie Hall allowed listeners to at long last properly hear Monk’s legendary “Five Spot” band at its peak, making this Smithsonian discovery one of the most significant in the history of jazz. Before getting to the music itself though, a discussion of why the Five Spot gig was so important to the careers of Monk and Coltrane and the mystery of why so little of this great band’s music was available (and in such desultory form and patchy quality) before this.
Thelonious Monk’s career belatedly took wing in the second half of the 1950s, aided by his productive contract with Riverside Records and the restoration of his cabaret card, which enabled him to work again in New York clubs. In July of 1957 Monk took a quartet into the Five Spot Cafe – a bohemian hangout for artists and writers located in the Bowery at 5 Cooper Square – for a now-famous six-month residency. The band consisted of Monk on piano, John Coltrane on tenor, Wilbur Ware on bass (replaced by Abdul Ahmed-Malik in August) and Shadow Wilson on drums. The gig was hugely important in Monk’s career, putting his music on regular display in New York for the first time in many years. It also had a huge impact on the development of Coltrane as a musician.
Coltrane was available because Miles Davis had disbanded his first quintet, tiring of the junkie antics of Coltrane and the other sidemen. It’s hard to imagine given his iconic status now, but Coltrane at that particular time was not yet all that well regarded. His playing was uneven and a bit rough at times, he had some gaps in his knowledge and some technical deficiencies on the horn, plus he was unreliable due to the bad heroin habit and many had tried to convince Davis to let him go prior to this.
Rising to the challenge of playing Monk’s difficult music would transform Coltrane that summer; really he would become the Trane we now know by the fall of 1957, mainly through a lot of hard work he put in with Monk and his compositions. He kicked heroin, began practicing and studying devotedly, making a serious commitment to music that would last the rest of his career. From Monk he learned a great deal about musical form and structure and a few things about playing the saxophone as well; Monk had an unusual knowledge of many instruments aside from the piano. The rhythm section was swinging from the outset and after a few weeks of initial scuffling Coltrane began to find his way and caught fire, making the whole band jell into something special.
A figure as authoritative as J.J. Johnson said, “Since Charlie Parker, the most electrifying sound that I’ve heard in contemporary jazz was Coltrane playing with Monk at the Five Spot…..It was incredible, like Diz and Bird.” Word spread fast among the jazz cogniscenti, much was written and said about this band and the engagement acquired a mythical cult-status. This was the band to hear and the place to be, with many attending as often as possible.
Despite this, very little by the band made it on to record, something of a mystery given Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews’ devotion to Monk’s music. Riverside eventually issued just three studio tracks by the band on Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane, the rest of the album being given over to alternate takes from two earlier Monk sessions. Given the kind of praise the Five Spot band was receiving and the peak level of jazz recording going on in New York then, you might think Riverside would have devoted at least a whole album to the band or maybe tried recording them live at the venue where they were creating such a stir. Even more curiously, Riverside would finally record Monk at the Five Spot in August of 1958, issuing two full records of material (Mysterioso and In Action), but with a totally different band. By then, the group was Johnny Griffin on tenor and Roy Haynes on drums with Monk and Abdul-Malik – the music was first-rate, but it didn’t quite have the cachet of the earlier quartet with Trane.
Beyond this, Riverside didn’t release the Monk/Coltrane studio tracks right away but chose to issue them on their budget label “Jazzland” with no particular fanfare, nor did they bother to make note of the actual recording date. It’s almost as though they were trying to sabotage or marginalize these recordings against all reason and I have Toronto jazz fan and scholar Don Brown to thank for explaining this mystery. John Coltrane was at the time a Prestige Records artist, but even so, Prestige president Bob Weinstock and Keepnews were quite willing to strike a compromise, such as issuing records by this band on each label. The problem was that Monk had been with Prestige before signing with Riverside, felt he had received shoddy treatment from Weinstock and was utterly unwilling to have anything to do with any arrangement involving Prestige, no matter what. Monk had always been stubborn and uncompromising and no wonder Riverside treated the three studio tracks so cavalierly – they were recorded illegally.
The three tracks themselves are good but nothing special, they don’t quite have the fire and intensity that people were buzzing about. They must have been recorded between July 18 and mid-August of 1957, because Ware is the bassist and he was replaced after August 13. This was early in the gig before Coltrane had really found his footing with Monk’s music, he sounds good but not quite there yet. For a long time the dearth of records by this band had me thinking that maybe all the rumpus about this legendary music was just that – exaggerated hot air – it’s been known to happen over time and I thought surely if this music was so special, someone would have bothered to record more of it somehow or other.
In 1993, Blue Note Records issued some very amateurishly recorded live tapes of the band from the Five Spot, done privately by Coltrane’s first wife Naima. Again, the information as to date (somewhere between late-August and December, 1957 is speculated) and even personnel is sketchy. The drummer is listed as Roy Haynes, but this is guesswork based on the fact that it sounds at times like Haynes. As the recording quality leaves everything to be desired, it’s hard to tell, personally I think it’s Shadow Wilson. The music is really amazing, but with all the sound imperfections – hum, talking noise, distortions, interruptions etc. – it’s tough slogging to actually enjoy it.
This long, sorry litany was finally corrected by the 2005 discovery of these Carnegie Hall concert tapes, a major moment of ‘jazz archaeology’ given the largely unheard but fabled standing of this group. It’s the jazz equivalent of finding a few undiscovered Picassos lying around in a boathouse or maybe a complete manuscript of an unknown James Joyce novel in a Paris garret. As early as 1995, jazz historian Lewis Porter suspected the existence of these tapes from various comments Coltrane had made in interviews, but finding them proved elusive. In February of 2005 Larry Applebaum, a recording lab supervisor at the Smithsonian, came across a box of tapes marked “Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957”, part of the vast collection of Voice of America broadcasts the Library had acquired, consisting of some 50,000 items. Inside he found a reel marked “T. Monk” and when he played it he instantly recognized Monk and Trane and realized what he’d found, amazed at what good shape the tapes were in and the high quality of the recording. Blue Note Records did a great job of transferring the tapes to CD and at long last this great music was released in late 2005.
Many superlatives would do in describing this music, it’s electrifying and arresting from start to finish. The quartet is very tight (in the good sense) and great individual moments also abound. Monk was reportedly in a relaxed, sunny mood that night and clearly is enjoying the prestigious venue and its excellent piano; indeed it’s almost odd to hear him on such a fine, well-tuned instrument. He has some wonderful moments, including a wild, five-bar intro to “Sweet and Lovely” and a stunning interpolation of his “52nd St. Theme” on “Evidence”. His comping is a percussive rhythmic force as always but he also leaves Coltrane a lot of space by laying out for long stretches.
And Coltrane needed the space, he’s at the early height of his “sheets of sound” bag here, delivering jagged flurries of notes in an avalanche of rhythmic subdivisions. Any tentativeness from his early days with Monk is long gone, he’s just all over the music and the horn with furious intensity but also with a newly found lyricism on the ballads “Monk’s Mood” and “Crepescule With Nellie”, neither of which has ever sounded better to me. It’s such a pleasure to hear Coltrane’s amazing sound deliver Monk’s now-familiar melodies and his soloing on “Evidence”, “Nutty”, “Blue Monk” and “Sweet and Lovely” stands with anything he ever did.
Ahmed Abdul-Malik is the quintessential Monk bassist, a workhorse with a big sound, a wide, percussive beat and a bulldog commitment to swinging and providing a foundation for the other players on these difficult, even mystifying Monk tunes.
The real revelation here though is the drumming of Shadow Wilson, he’s just magnificent. I’d heard him before on records, mostly with Basie’s big band, small groups led by Basie sidemen, with Illinois Jacquet, and on the three studio tracks with Monk and Trane and was duly impressed, but his playing here is on a different level altogether. He was one of Monk’s favourite drummers and it’s easy to hear why, everything he does is at the service of the music. He swings very hard with a wide, graceful beat, shows great taste and flexibility. His sound is beautiful and crisp, his ride cymbal stroke dances and sparkles and his accents show a great insight into the shapes and phrases of Monk’s tunes. He reminds me of another marvelous ‘drummer for all seasons’ – Gus Johnson – but with more of a bebop edge. He also sounds like a forerunner of Billy Higgins, but with a little more muscle and technique.
Rossiere Wilson’s nickname is appropriate because much of his career took place in the shadows for no good reason other than bad luck; he’s the unsung hero of bebop drumming. As a young man in the early ’40s he developed a reputation as a great big band drummer, but little of his work survived on record. He was the much-admired drummer in the celebrated Earl Hines band of 1943-44, which had so many key modernists (Bird and Diz, trombonists Benny Powell and Bennie Green and a young singer named Sarah Vaughan) but never recorded because of the A.F.M. ban on recording in those years. Shortly after this, Woody Herman had to replace his great drummer Dave Tough for a while due to his ill-health. Woody was famously democratic and held an election for Tough’s replacement and the band voted unanimously for Shadow, even though he wasn’t white like the rest of them. This is a huge testament to his playing, but again very little of it exists on recordings. Shadow replaced Jo Jones with Basie for a time in the middle and late ’40s, but this wasn’t one of Basie’s more prominent periods or bands. Still, drummers such as Buddy Rich and Roy Haynes pointed to Shadow’s astounding polyrhythmic drum break on “Queer Street” through the years. Then there was the whole mishandling of the Five Spot band described above, Wilson had to be wondering if he’d ever catch a break.
Like Sid Catlett, Shadow Wilson could play very musically with absolutely anybody, was equally comfortable with big or small bands, bebop, swing or mainstream styles. I noticed there was nothing much from Wilson on record after the Monk Five Spot period and discovered why in doing some research for this – he died on July 11, 1959, two months shy of his 40th birthday. I’d never known this before and this makes the discovery of these tapes even more valuable and meaningful as a long overdue place-in-the-sun-legacy of this wonderful musician, almost forgotten but now, not quite.
With all the playing they did and the talent level involved, it’s hardly surprising that this band sounded so great, what is surprising is that it took so long for a good recording of such singularly historic music to emerge and by a miracle at that. This is a rare case of lightning being trapped in a bottle, then being allowed to mature for almost 50 years like a fine Armagnac. What a special pleasure to finally uncork and sample such a heady brew.
Postscript – In the liner notes to this CD there’s a reproduction of the poster advertising this special Thanksgiving jazz concert, which serves as a reminder of just how much was going on in New York in the ’50s, it was just ridiculous. Appearing on the same bill with Monk’s Quartet were Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker (with Zoot Sims) and Sonny Rollins. You could hear all of them at the 8:30 or midnight shows for a ticket ranging in price from $2.00 to $3.75. The mind boggles.
10. Shelly Manne Quintet – Sept. 22-24, 1959 – The Blackhawk, San Francisco.
This case is different from any of the others, seemingly not so much a far-fetched example of catching lightning in a bottle because of more optimal conditions. This was a working band, recorded live during a two-week engagement at The Blackhawk in San Fransisco, a jazz club with an intimate atmosphere and warm acoustics. Many fine live recordings were done there, including the famous ones by the Miles Davis Quintet a few years later. It didn’t last nearly as long, but really The Blackhawk was to the west coast what The Village Vanguard was to New York.
The band (Manne on drums, trumpeter Joe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, pianist Victor Feldman and Monty Budwig on bass) was in such crackling yet consistent form that the recordings yielded four full LPs of material. (The CD release expands to five volumes, with some tunes never before issued and some alternate takes of previously issued ones.) Most of the tracks last at least ten minutes and capture the band really stretching out in very immediate and spontaneous fashion; there’s a seventeen-minute version of “Vamp’s Blues” that must have taken up almost a whole side of an LP. This has become commonplace but was quite new and daring at the time, helping to pave the way for live club recordings to come.
There are two factors that make these records a long-shot though. Firstly, Manne’s long-serving and excellent pianist, Russ Freeman, was touring Europe with Benny Goodman at the time, so Victor Feldman was subbing for him. Feldman was no slouch – in fact, most would now rank him ahead of Freeman as a pianist – but at the time he wasn’t as well established – in fact these records would greatly solidify his reputation. It worked out extremely well as there was good chemistry between Feldman and Budwig/Manne right away, but it could easily have gone the other way. The piano is a key chair in any group; sometimes a sub can bring the inspiration of fresh energy and new ideas to a band, other times the effect can be disjointed and tentative, putting pressure on the whole band and sapping its drive.
Secondly, these recordings were not at all planned, but hastily arranged. The band was so hot after the first week that Manne phoned Lester Koenig (president of Contemporary Records, for whom Manne had been recording for years) and begged him to come all the way from L.A. to record them. It was something of a tall order on such short notice, but Koenig loved musicians, trusted Manne implicitly and arranged for three nights of recording at the club. The results were so terrific (both musically and sonically) that Koenig decided to release as much of the music as possible rather than pick and choose.
The very happy result is simply some of the finest straight-ahead, mainstream-bebop ever recorded, by a very balanced and cohesive group. These records have been favourites of mine ever since I first heard them in the 1970s as a special after-midnight feature on Ted O’Reilly’s CJRT jazz radio show. The music is fiery and swinging, yet relaxed and clean, spontaneous yet orderly. It offers a close-up view of how both the individual and collective elements in a band can and should interact, through dynamics, variety and listening. There’s very much an “all for one, one for all” spirit in the teamwork on display here. In Gordon and Kamuca they had two excellent horn soloists who also dovetail beautifully as a front-line, their sounds blending as one in unison or harmony. Monty Budwig and Manne by then had a close musical relationship as a rhythm section dating back several years, their pulse is both very driving and secure. Feldman, who had huge ears and a keen rhythmic sense, operates beautifully between these poles, interactive but never overplaying.
They offer an attractively varied repertoire of jazz tunes by West Coasters – Frank Rosolino’s “Blue Daniel”, Bill Holman’s “A Gem From Tiffany” among others – and East Coasters, including Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight”, Roland Alexander’s “Cabu” and two by Benny Golson, “Whisper Not” and the lesser-known “Step Lightly”. Some standards are mixed in – surprisingly fast versions of “What’s New” and “Poinciana”, plus “I Am In Love”, “Just Squeeze Me” and “Summertime” – as well as a couple of long, intense blues outings.
The playing is so consistently good that it’s impossible and unnecessary to pick highlights, though I have a few favourite tracks. “Summertime” is taken very slowly in a modal vein which perfectly captures its lullaby quality and is kept from bogging down by the dynamic work of Manne and Budwig, the latter playing some lovely, ringing double-stops. The fourteen-bar waltz “Blue Daniel” is given a fabulous treatment and “Our Delight” is just smoking bebop from start to finish.
These recordings have particular value in documenting the playing of Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca, neither of whom recorded enough as leaders. Gordon was originally from Boston and played briefly in the bands of both Art Blakey and Horace Silver before moving west. He’s an eloquent, swinging, lyrical soloist who uses mutes beautifully and puts me in mind of Blue Mitchell; he sounds especially good on “Step Lightly”. He would die in a house fire not too long after these records were made, making them a poignant memorial of his special talent. Richie Kamuca has long been one of my favourite tenor players, of all the Prez-influenced ones he has to me the sweetest sound, without ever being cloying. He made a few records as a leader in the 1950s and three more in the mid-’70s for Concord Records, all of them hard to find. He was always active as a sideman, though often in obscure settings and these records form a large, glorious and concentrated chunk of his work. He sounds wonderful throughout and never better than on “Our Delight”, where he’s just steaming.
Although he doesn’t play loud and certainly doesn’t hog the solo spotlight even as a leader, Shelly Manne is just all over this music, pulling all kinds of strings to orchestrate and vary the proceedings in very subtle and creative ways. He’s extremely aware of dynamics and texture, of building momentum and his control of the sound of his drum set is astonishing here. Manne had always had these qualities but here, in his first-ever live recording as a leader after years in the studios, they seem to be magnified as if on steroids, he sounds truly inspired without ever going over the edge. His hi-hat is incredibly propulsive, his brush and cymbal work deadly crisp and he makes truly surprising use of tonal combinations from his kit. Among the highlights on these records are the “rhythm section solos” of Manne and Budwig, where Shelly asks Feldman to “stroll” and Monty continues to walk, with Shelly making melodic percussive statements against the pulse of the bass while also leaving Budwig room to sound through. They’re not really bass solos or drum solos but dialogues which focus attention on both instruments in an exciting and creative way. Above all they really swing and I wish jazz groups would try more of this, it’s a refreshing antidote to too many bass solos and too many drum solos.
Contemporary Records was widely admired for its consistently high recorded sound quality, and these live ones are no exception, probably aided by the wonderful acoustics of the club. The sound is very clear and natural – the drums in particular are captured with great fidelity – they’re not loud, but are very present and crisp. The recording was done by Howard Holzer, a protege of Roy DuNann, Contemporary’s main (and best) engineer. I want to do some heretical editorializing on the subject here. If you asked any jazz fan who the best jazz engineer of all time is, the answer would invariably be Rudy Van Gelder. This is understandable, from about 1950 on, Van Gelder recorded more great jazz by far than anyone else, his name is synonymous with hundreds and hundreds of classic modern jazz records from New York – on Savoy, Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse! etc. Of course, quantity is not the same thing as quality, he had the advantage of recording some of the best musicians in the world and there’s another way of looking at this.
It stands to reason that the best jazz engineer would produce the best sounding jazz records and in my opinion Van Gelder didn’t – Roy DuNann did. I’m not talking about the music here, but the sound quality. A lot of Van Gelder’s records sound unbalanced and over-amped to me, especially the horns and sometimes the drums have too much reverb, are too hot in the mix. Listen closely to any of the Contemporary records DuNann engineered – by Manne, Barney Kessel, The Poll Winners, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Rollins, Curtis Counce, Harold Land and many others – and I think you’ll notice how much more natural and balanced they sound. DuNann built Contemporary’s studio and pioneered all kinds of recording techniques for noise reduction and such that I don’t want to get into, because I don’t even understand them. But with no wish to run down Rudy Van Gelder at all, my ears tell me that Roy DuNann is the greatest jazz engineer who ever lived.
In one of his stage announcements from the Blackhawk, Shelly Manne shows his frustration with the label “West Coast Jazz”. He points out that the quintet consists of a pianist from London, England, a trumpet player from Boston, a saxophonist from Philadelphia, a bassist from Pender, Nebraska and himself, a drummer from New York City. The music they play is also an ear-opening rebuttal to the commonly held stereotype that all West Coast Jazz was cool, cutely over-arranged or emotionally effete. This music is warm-blooded, swinging and spontaneous, a demonstration that occasionally lightning in a bottle can last longer than one night and that great jazz transcends labels and sometimes, even time itself.
© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.