CULT CLASSIC FOUND: THELONIOUS MONK-PALAIS DES BEAUX ARTS 1963.
Cult Classic Found: Thelonious Monk-Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963.
Nowadays, Thelonious Monk is regarded and recognised as one of the greatest ever jazz pianists. However, in the past, he wasn’t without his critics. English poet and jazz critic Phillip Larkin cruelly dismissed him as: “the elephant on the keyboard.” He didn’t appreciate Thelonious Monk’s innovative approach to jazz music which features on Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963 which is a recording that lay unreleased until 2020.
Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963 features five of Thelonious Monk’s own compositions. However, he only composed seventy pieces during a career that spanned thirty-three years. Despite that, he’s now the second-most covered jazz composer of all time.
These compositions and improvisations featured dissonances and what are best described as angular melodic twists, which are an accurate representation of his unique approach to the piano. Initially, it was described as hard swinging, but evolved over the next twenty years.
Those that had followed Thelonious Monk career watched his style evolve, and his extremely percussive attack which featured abrupt and dramatic use of switched key releases, silences, pauses and hesitations, which divided the opinion of jazz critics and fans. What they forgot, was that Thelonious Monk was a relative latecomer to jazz, and had started his career accompanying a touring evangelist on an old church organ. In some ways, Thelonious Monk was making up for lost time, as he was already twenty-four before he first started playing jazz.
Despite arriving to the party late, Thelonious Monk was soon making up for lost time, and from the early fifties, was working as bandleader, sideman and collaborating with other future giants of jazz.
He had started off at Blue Note Records between 1948 and 1952, before moving to Prestige Records where he spent two years between 1952 and 1954. After that, Thelonious Monk moved to Riverside Records which was his home between 1955 and 1961, and by then, his star was in the ascendancy.
This was quite remarkable given everything that Thelonious Monk had been through since the early fifties. He had his New York cabaret card revoked in 1951, when he became the latest victim of a trumped narcotics charge. This meant that he was unable to play in New York’s club’s for six long years. During that time, Thelonious Monk signed to Riverside Records in 1955, which was his home until 1961.
Although Thelonious Monk was held in high regard by critics and commentators, sadly, for someone so talented, his records weren’t selling well. In 1955, he agreed to release an albums of jazz standards, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington in the hope that this would increase his profile and record sales. However, later in 1955 tragedy struck for Thelonious Monk.
Towards the end of 1955, Thelonious Monk’s mother passed away, and the following year, 1956, a fire destroyed the pianist’s apartment in West ‘63rd’ Street, New York. Thelonious Monk and family were left destitute, and his family of five had no option but to stay with friends for several months, with fifteen people shoehorned into a three room apartment. Meanwhile, Thelonious Monk continued to live with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which nobody was aware at the time. Despite this, he released Brilliant Corners an album of hard bop in late 1956, which was one of the finest albums he released for Riverside Records.
In 1957, Thelonious Monk’s run of bad luck continued when he was involved in a car accident, and when the police discovered him unresponsive, took him to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent three weeks. By then, Thelonious Monk was unaware that his father had been living in a psychiatric hospital for the past fifteen years
Things got worse for Thelonious Monk in May 1957, when his wife Nellie became ill, and required a thyroidectomy. After the operation, she became frail and depressed, which affected Thelonious Monk’s wellbeing. The last two years had been hard on the couple, but at least Thelonious Monk was about to get his New York cabaret card back, and could start playing live in the Big Apple.
By then, Thelonious Monk had a manager, and started a six-month residency at the Five Spot Café, and had formed a friendship with John Coltrane. This was a coincidence as many of John Coltrane’s band had served their music apprenticeship Five Spot.
During Thelonious Monk’s residency at the Five Spot Café during 1957 and 1958, the sharp dressed and sartorially elegant pianist took to the stage with his carefully cultivated look. Thelonious Monk wore suits, hats and had taken to wearing sunglasses which hid the window to his troubled and weary soul. Still, he dazzled patrons with his unique playing style as he switched between standards and his own compositions. Thelonious Monk was back in the Big Apple, after a six-year absence.
With Thelonious Monk’s albums still not selling well by 1958, he was asked to release a second album of jazz standards. It was hoped that The Unique Thelonious Monk would increase his profile and record sales. Ironically, later, in 1958, Thelonious Monk’s face was all over American newspapers, after his latest brush with the law.
Thelonious Monk had been hired to play for a week at the Comedy Club, in Maryland, and on his way to the gig, he and Nica De Koenigswarter were stopped by the police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Thelonious Monk refused to answer or cooperate with the police officer, who beat him with a blackjack. During an authorised search the car drugs were found, and suddenly Thelonious Monk was looking at some serious jail time. Fortunately, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the pair had been unlawfully detained, and that the beating of Thelonious Monk meant that the consent to the search void as given under duress. Forty-one year old Thelonious Monk survived to fight another day.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Thelonious Monk’s relationship with Riverside Records had gone south, after a disagreement over royalty payments. While Riverside Records released two live albums recorded in Europe, Thelonious Monk hadn’t recorded a studio album since 5 By Monk By 5 in June 1959. Fortunately, Columbia Records one of the four major labels were keen to sign Thelonious Monk.
The negations between Thelonious Monk and Columbia Records, were protracted, and it wasn’t until 1962 that a contract was signed. At last, Thelonious Monk could get back into the studio and do what he did best…make music.
In March 1963, Thelonious Monk released his Columbia Records’ debut Monk’s Dream to widespread critical acclaim. It was a return to form and was a reminder of his considerable powers as a performer and composer. So was the followup Criss-Cross which was almost completed. However, before that, Thelonious Monk and his regular quartet embarked upon a European tour.
On the ‘10th’ of March 1963 Thelonious Monk was scheduled to play at the prestigious Palais Des Beaux-Arts in the Belgian capital Brussels. That night, the concert was recorded by the Belgian broadcast company BRT/RTB. They had brought along the best recording equipment to record Thelonious Monk and his quartet.
Thelonious Monk was always a showman and when he shuffled onto the stage he was wearing, a suit, sunglasses and his trademark grey wool Papakha hat. Meanwhile, drummer Frankie Dunlop, bassist John Ore and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse were waiting for him. They watched as Thelonious Monk waved his arms around which was their signal to get the show underway.
The set opens with the jaunty sounding Bye-Ya from his latest album Monk’s Dream. The rest of this experienced quartet’s playing is tight as they provide the backdrop for Thelonious Monk. He showcase his ability to improvise and his avant-garde flair. It’s a similar case on Monk’s Dream which is a reaffirmation that he’s one of the great jazz pianists. Not to be outdone, Frankie Dunlop showcases his considerable talents on Drum Solo and unleashes a spellbinding and inventive solo that lasts a minute.
Thelonious Monk gives a sneak preview of the title-track of his second Columbia album Criss-Cross. This album of post bop featured complex melodies and harmonies and his stride piano style. It was also showcase for his theories on pitch qualities for his improvisations. Criss-Cross was one of the highlights of Thelonious Monk’s next album as well as Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963 and later became a standard.
From there, Thelonious Monk and his band work their way through Epistrophy before closing the set with one of his favourites Just a Gigolo. For most pianists it would be a challenging piece. However, almost effortlessly Thelonious Monk manages with ease what seem like impossible chords and deploys his trademark halting delivery which he seems to exaggerate. Later, he enjoys his moment in the spotlight during a stunning solo where his hands glide over and caress the keyboard before he and his band take their bow.
After Thelonious Monk’s appearance at Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963 the set lay in BRT/RTB’s vaults for forty-two years. Since then, a team of dedicated archivists and musical technicians have spent their time restoring digitising the tapes so future generations can enjoy them.
This includes Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963 which is a reminder Thelonious Monk who nowadays is regarded as of one of greatest jazz pianists of his generation. Backed by his quartet Thelonious Monk plays an almost flawless set on this cult classic which was rediscovered fifty-seven years after it was originally recorded.
Cult Classic Found: Thelonious Monk-Palais Des Beaux Arts 1963.