on making a comeback (3/21)

60 years ago, Thelonious Monk was the greatest pianist on the planet.

Monk’s Dream flew tens of thousands of copies off the shelves. Time fronted him for the cover of their ‘64 magazine. Columbia devoted an extravagant amount of resources to promoting him.

Professionally, everything had gone his way. Politically, however, was a different story.

The world around him began to crumble. Civil strife had taken over the country. Racial lines were drawn in the sand. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

It seemed, somehow, as if Monk had escaped the tragedies of his time.

Yet, the world eventually caught up to his creative sprint, and by the summer of ‘68, his cultural role had diminished. His records weren’t selling. He was in debt to the IRS. He was criticized in the press. However long his run may have been, it was clear that people had grown tired of his abstract, unconventional playing.

It was the materialization of every artist’s worst fear – fading into obscurity, into mediocrity. His music, nothing more than a relic of an ever-evolving jazz age, had been pushed aside to make way for the much more exciting Chick Coreas or Herbie Hancocks.

And thus, when 15 year old Danny Scher recruited Monk to perform a measly gig at Palo Alto High School, it quickly became a high stakes game. A full house, hundreds of both black and white citizens, stormed the school’s auditorium to see Monk do what he does best – groove.

What survived of the night came from a tape stored by the janitor of PAHS some 40 years ago. But what emanates when the recording runs is not the scratchy, clogged version we expect – it’s the revival of Monk in his purest form: unconventional, hip, and extravagantly energetic.

And it was this energy, this vibe that became my muse. When I began to write, I had a pretty strict routine: I would read a few pages of a book, open up the doc I was working in, put on Palo Alto, and fire away.

I was obsessed with it. I could never say why, but it was always that record. It was always the sound of Monk’s bench shaking the floorboards. It was always the roars of applause blending between the songs.

Because without the shaking, without the applause, there would be nothing there. There would be no environment, no energy from one of the world’s most prominent musicians.

There would be no Thelonious Monk.

“I can imagine that Thelonious,” his son T.S. Monk said, “liked the idea that this kid was so bold and doing his own thing – which was so paramount to Thelonious Monk…. It sounded like something my father would do.”

It’s the classic tale of finding our rhythm – Monk and the quartet whipping away on stage, working to find the musical rhythm, with Scher hustling to find it not only in his career, but in his community as well.

Palo Alto’s greatness lies not in what music plays, but in the rhythm it speaks to us. The fact that doing something unorthodox doesn’t have to be unrealistic. The idea that brilliance may have to sit in an attic for decades before being unearthed. The mindset that even if the country behind you falls apart, there’s still a way to save the people in front of you, like Monk and Scher did in that grimy auditorium.

It’s not a recording, but an invitation. To listen beyond the notes. To delve into our own attics of creativity. To hold fast, even when the world overtakes us.

Because maybe then we’ll get our groove back.