The Jazzcat

Orrin Keepnews Listening Party for SF Jazz Members only on Thelonious Monk

by on Jun.22, 2007, under News


The Yerba Buena Center was the first performance space that

I visited for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. It as a number of years ago and

Yusef Lateef was performing there with Adam Rudolph. Who was it that came

onstage to introduce the giant of jazz, non other than my hero producer, Orrin



I will 100% guarantee that if you see Orrin’s name on any

recording as a producer, the music is definitely a winner. This fine gentleman

of jazz has been in close proximity of the finest masters of this music and

when he speaks, his words are platinum. His story is history.


This is a listening party and this is exactly what is

audience will do is listen while Orrin Keepnews does a one on one with Randall

Klein, the director of the SF Jazz organization. The conversations are casual

but, there is much insight behind the man who produced legendary music. This

conversation will include some lived footage and some pieces of Monks music as

they will be qued-up and ready to play at the drop of a hat.


This first clip we see is of Monk walkin’ down the streets of

NYC and many people come up to him with warm praise, affection and admiration. It

was a day in the life of a master just starting to be widely recognized for his

genius talents and lovin’ every minute of it. Orrin says that Monk was on stage

even when he wasn’t on stage. They worked on many recordings over a six year

period. There have been a few documentaries done, “Straight No Chaser” being

the best. Clint Eastwood became executive director of the film which came out

after “Bird”, the one done on the great Charlie Parker.


Charlie Parker: A Studio Chronicle

Orrin and Monk were close in age in the mid 50’s early 60’s

and they each had a child about the age of six, one named Peter and the other

named Boo Boo or Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr., whichever you prefer!


We get to see a second film clip and this piece takes us to

travels in Europe, with Phil Woods, Johnny

Griffin, Charlie Rouse, Nellie and the rest of the cats Monking around. Johnny

was sharp! He liked going over to Europe to by

the latest styles. You saw the cats in the airport, waiting around for trains,

getting off busses, foreigners wanting autographs but, all having a great time.

Nellie was so sweet. She always managed to take care of her man making sure he

was fed and looking distinguished before performances. They were drinking a lot

of Coca Cola and the luggage kept being over weight because Nellie thought she

had to take the bottles back to return them for their deposit. Those were the



“Monk Plays Ellington” in 1955 was one of the first

recordings that Orrin and Monk had ever worked on together and the last was one

done at the famous Black Hawk which was right here in San Francisco on Turk and Hyde. What is funny

is that Orrin has been around so long that there is no one left to challenge

him about the particulars. As he goes so goes the His-Story! Orrin also told a

story about the first time he had ever met Monk. It was in 1948 after the end

of WWII and he ran into a friend who owned this publication called the Record

Changer. Shortly thereafter, Orrin became the magazines editor. The magazine

featured articles on all types of jazz and got the attention of Alfred Lions,

producer for the classic label Blue Note Records.


Alfred invited Orrin up the house for a small private party

and introduced him to Thelonious. Orrin quite frankly was not familiar with the

“High Prestice of Bop” and at first, like many, did not think too much of the

music. But, once he heard the self titled tune, “Thelonious”, intrigue set in

and he asked Thelonious if he would like to do an interview which they did.

That was the beginning.


Orrin went on to start Riverside Records which just happened

to be at a time when Monk was having difficulty with his current recording

company Prestige Records. When Orrin contacted Monk about coming to Riverside, he thought

that Monk would not remember him from their first encounter together but, that

was not true. Monk told Orrin that the article that Orrin wrote which featured

the interview was actually the first time that anything had been written about




Monk was the beginning of Riverside Records. Orrin had the

idea of doing a collection of standards so that people could come to know Monk

playing through the sound of these standards and since Thelonious loved The

Duke, “Monk Plays Ellington” was the first release. I would not quite say “It

Don’t Mean a Thing” because it did and after a few of these releases of

standards, Monk began to record with more than just a trio. The sounds of

be-bop horns turned trios into quartets, quintets and so on.


Sonny Rollins came on board and they recorded “Brilliant

Corners”. Lucky enough for Riverside,

Sonny had just released “Saxophone Colossus” which had risen to great fame

prior to the release of “Brilliant Corners” which brought much attention to the

project from critics and the public alike. This was not easy session and proved

to be quite a difficult challenge to record but, after 24 takes in one evening

and many hours of editing, they finally got it beautifully right. Not that

these are not great players, it was just that the music was difficult and Monk

was not a teacher. Everyone who played with him certainly learned their


There were those who appreciated Monks

contributions to the

music and those who did not but in the end, the music becomes beautiful


everyone. Once people spend their time listening with open ears the

“Evidence” becomes evident. Orrin did a solo album with Monk and

because he thought it was

important for Monk to express himself without any accompaniment. No

matter how

musical you are, no one came close to a complete expression of

thoughts, ideas

and concepts as Monk himself.


The “Town Hall” recording became quite famous. Paul Overton

transcribed Monks work for a larger ensemble and the band was packed with some

really heavy hitters. Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Eddie Bert, Sam

Jones, Arthur Taylor and many others took the music to a much higher level.

Orrin was recording the performance on tapes that were not the longest in

length. In order to capture everything, he had one of the cats on stage, I

think it was Charlie Rouse, give him a signal before they started so that they

could start and stop the tape in the recording booth to save space. This worked

for the first couple of tunes but, once the cats got into the music, Charlie

forgot all about the cues and the tape ran out. They had to record “Little Rudy

Tootie” over again and what you hear on the album is a mixture of both takes.


Just like everyone, we all have a thing when it comes to the

names of Monk compositions. As clever, thoughtful, genius, spiritual,

insightful and intriguing as you think they may be, if you looked deep inside

to the most simplistic of situations, you might find that perhaps they are just

that. I never knew that “Worry Later” meant worry about the name of the tune

later and that “Think of One” was Monk actually asking Orrin to think of a name

for that tune. As simple as some of the titles may be, there is no denying that

simple and complex occupy the same linear space in the music making it not just

the shortest distance between to points but, in fact the question is already

answered before it is even asked allowing so much to be said the silence. For

instance, think of a fisherman who loves to fish. He makes no money but, he is

happy and he feeds his family. Should he start a company to sell the fish, get

stockholders, make large profits, become a fortune 500 company, sell the

company only to retire and spend the rest of his life doing what he already

loves? You see the dilemma. When a man has already figured this out and just

plays the music, there are no questions to ask. When you get some time off,

take a “San Francisco Holiday” and perhaps you can “Think of One”. 


Life, love, music, Thelonious Monk!


LeRoy Downs







Leave a Reply

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!

Visit our friends!

A few highly recommended friends...