Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mysterious Thelonious

Hi everyone,

Jason Moran
Last March, the Kennedy Center celebrated Thelonious Monk with two events, a listening party and an homage to Monk's landmark Town Hall Concert in New York in 1959. Here's how super cool they were.

Thelonious Monk Listening Party 
(March 21, 2015)

When Jason Moran took over the post of Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, I had no idea who he was. I don't know if these listening parties at the Kennedy Center started with him, but they're genius!

Thelonious Monk always wore great hats. 
© Michael Ochs/Getty
Thelonious Monk attracted me to this event, which had no description. It turned out to be just as it sounds: a listening party, during which we listened to pieces of music and talked about them afterward, "like you used you to with your friends when you brought home a new record," Jason Moran explained. I didn't get together with my friends to discuss my favorite albums when I was younger, but I knew what he meant: whenever I bought a new one, I listened and studied it as soon as I got home. This idea was right up my alley, and who's better talk about than Thelonious! At this event, about 30 of us sat in a circle with panelists Jason Moran, bassist Taurus Mateen, and French horn player Robert "Brother Ah"  Northern, who actually performed with Thelonious Monk. We focused on the large speakers set up in the center of the room.

The panelists picked the songs for the program and explained why they were special to them. This was more of a talk amongst themselves than a group discussion, and I loved learning first-hand accounts of Thelonious Monk. Robert Northern told us that the musician was inspired to write "Evidence" after watching a community basketball game and thinking about his therapist, who Monk said had "no evidence" that he's manic. Aside from "Evidence," we listened to "Little Rootie Tootie," "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Thelonious," and "Nutty." I'd never heard "Nutty" before, and time ran out before they could talk about it. Who knew that this mysterious $12 educational event would leave me wanting more? It was an hour well spent and one of the many reasons why the Kennedy Center is one of the best places in town.

Jason Moran's In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959
(March 28, 2015)

The Thelonious Monk listening party served as prep for this main event, a multimedia re-imagining of Thelonious Monk's Town Hall concert in New York in 1959. Here's Jason Moran talking about it:

Jason Moran previews In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959© The Kennedy Center 

Thelonious Monk thinks and plays the piano like no one else can. The concept of this show – to capture that spirit in a new piece of work – seems like an impossible task to me, so I was excited to see the attempt.

To start the show, Jason Moran walked on stage, sat at the piano, and put on giant headphones. Thelonious Monk began to play on the speakers, and soon Jason Moran began to play along in his own way. As they played together, on a large screen above him, we toured Jason Moran's childhood home as he talked about his upbringing and introduction to Thelonious Monk's music when he was 13 years old. The narrative on screen also introduced Jason Moran's band – The Big Bandwagon – Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Walter Smith on tenor saxophone, Frank Lacy on trombone, Bob Stewart on tuba, Taurus Mateen on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums. One by one, they joined in on playing introductory song with Jason Moran.

This tribute to Thelonious Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert was a mix of music and biography. Following the same set list as the original concert, the program paused at times for Jason Moran's stories about Thelonious Monk's influence on his own life or to play archival video and audio recordings of Thelonious Monk himself – giving multilayered insight into the man and his music.

The first song, "Thelonious," was followed by "Friday, the 13th" and "Monk's Mood." Then, after the screen informed us of Monk's family ancestry and roots in slavery, the band revisited "Thelonious." They then broke into a New Orleans-style funeral song as each band member headed backstage, one by one. We could hear them playing in the distance; as their sound faded, Thelonious Monk took our attention through a 1959 audio recording, during which he talked about music and the songs he was rehearsing for the Town Hall concert.

Sometimes, Thelonious Monk liked 
to dance mid performance. 
After he finished, the band returned for the second half of the show. They played "Little Rootie Tootie," "Thelonious" (again), and "Crepuscule with Nellie." They made each of these songs their own, playing off of the original. It felt like they were inside Thelonious Monk's chaotic mind coming up with these tunes. Each musician had moments to shine, playing their own melodies, but eventually they all came together to play the song we recognized.

By the end of the show, all the musicians wore headphones again, listening to and jamming with Thelonious Monk. One by one, they took off their sets and left the stage. This time, they walked through the aisles of the orchestra level and out the concert hall doors. Jason Moran was the last to leave, jumping off the stage to join his bandmates in the Kennedy Center's main hall. Out there, we crowded the main-level entrance and stairways, watching them finish the song and cheering as they did. I wonder if anyone attending other performances at the Kennedy Center that night knew what they were missing. Thelonious Monk was in the house!

Watch this episode of Jazz in America, hosted by bassist Christian McBride, for more from Jason Moran about Thelonious Monk's life and influence and to see segments from this amazing show.


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