Tonight my friend Marian and I went to a pair of documentaries, footage from 1968. They are “Monk” and “Monk in Europe.”

The first shows the pianist Thelonious Monk in New York. He and his trio are playing at The Village Vanguard and recording for Columbia Records. The second film is from a northern European tour that included London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Rotterdam —   travel, rehearsal and performance footage. Fifty years after they were shot, “Monk” and “Monk in Europe” come from an analog age. The light can be silvery and warm, the sound can get a little edgy but it’s remarkably good. Everything is real and draws you in.

In Europe Monk seems in turn travel-lagged and completely present, musically in charge during the concerts. Up close you see his face, his hand over hand technique, his pulsing feet. Toward the end of “Monk in Europe,” he plays several choruses of “Ask Me Now” with each phrase  setting up the next one as though he’s advancing a story or building a case. Sometimes he pulls back from the narrative to embellish it or just run down the keyboard. For me it’s more logic than narrative. Music is his medium and he communicates. To see him create  in real time is the gift of these films.

The crew — two brothers, one shooting and the other doing sound — gets up close. Monk is almost always in the frame and when he’s not, you feel he should be.  While the octet sound checks in the hall, back at the hotel, Nellie Monk helps her husband get dressed for the concert. There’s a sense that he might be running late.

And yet having him in the picture does not guarantee that you know how he feels about things. That happens only when he’s playing, and maybe that’s an illusion too.

Charles Rouse, Larry Gales, Ben Riley play saxophone, bass and drums in both films. For the octet, Phil Woods (so young that I did not recognize his face) and Johnny Griffin complete the sax section, Ray Copeland on trumpet and James Cleveland on trombone. Clark Terry drops in as a guest soloist. He and Monk leave the stage with arms around each other.

Monk is last seen sitting between his niece and his wife, buckling his seatbelt to fly home, beaming a smile straight into the camera.



Dorrance Dance: Jump Monk, SOUNDspace + More @ City Center

I have something new to love: Dorrance Dance. The tap troupe is at City Center here in New York through March 30. Last night was opening night.

Bill Irwin in top hat and tails choreographed, wrote and narrated Harlequin and Pantalon for one dancer – Warren Craft – in both roles. First he’s tall and wearing a diamond-patterned leotard (Harlequin), then a crooked old man in a black frock coat (Pantalon). Though they never share the stage (your first hint), the dancer slips behind a narrow satin curtain or disappears into an open trunk just long enough to hide the gleeful, almost successful costume changes. And Irwin (seated to the side) is guileful, slipping an obsequious reference to “the Endowment” (as in the National Endowment for the Arts) into an old tale as Harlequin and Pantalon fight over who owns the dancer and the dance.

In Jump Monk the ten Dorrance dancers tap, mostly in unison, to Brenda Bufalino’s choreography and Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’”. (“Jump Monk” and  “Moanin’” share the same chord progression.) The sound design for this concert is foot-first, alive with the color and nuance of the countless ways a tap can hit the floor. I could close my eyes and listen but the dance is too good, even for a moment. Toward the end, as the live musicians dropped out, the dancing feet carried on and on, to the joy of all.

Photo and video from dorrancedance.com

SOUNDspace – the second half of the concert – has no accompaniment. The  choreography is by Dorrance and spotlights individual improvisations. At first you see just the dancers’ knees-to-feet in a row across the lip of the stage. They tap in the rhythm of a mighty railroad train coming down the tracks. Then Michelle Dorrance emerges in a long solo as the owner of two bare legs that seem interchangeably left and right. Tapping and re-mapping the stage, smiling and effortless, she is both boundless and precise. Also camoe-ed, Warren Craft (again) moves as a puppet on many strings.  Nicholas Van Young brings a Paul Bunyan woodchopper look (life-sized, not a giant) as he slaps his thighs and taps his chest while his feet tap.

Throughout, I sat next to an empty chair and missed my friend Sue Moore. Until a few weeks ago, Sue was going to concerts and plays and reviewing them on her Facebook page. All the time she was fighting cancer.  Earlier this month, she had to let go and on Monday, March 25, she died. Sue, I miss you. You are a mighty inspiration. A friend. Thank you.




Harlem à Limoges: An Article in Syncopated Times

Check out my article in the March 2019 edition of Syncopated Times. I write about the Hot Club of Limoges, the creation and passion of Jean-Marie Masse and his wife Paulette, focusing on three American musicians who became associated with the HCL and friends with the Masse family.

  • Trumpeter Bill Coleman (1904-1981) from Kansas lived in France after WWII.
  • Trumpeter Buck Clayton (1911-1991), also from Kansas, moved as a young man to Los Angeles, then worked in Shanghai in the 1930s! After the War he worked in Europe, including Limoges. When I came to New York in the 1980s, Buck Clayton was here, teaching and playing.
  • Willie “The Lion” Smith (1897-1973) was decorated as an American soldier in France in the First War. He returned after the Second to play solo piano in Limoges.

Coleman led the way to Europe, Clayton had longevity and adaptability, and I love Smith for a bunch of reasons, personal and musical. He grew up in Newark. He played the piano, he’s an inventor of Harlem stride. Fats Waller was a protégé.

In the book Harlem à Limoges, the story is told that The Lion was afraid to fly, so his wife went out and bought the tickets for their 1950 trip to Limoges. He has a big personality that leaps off the page.
My article will be online in late February. Soon! There are thousands of clippings, recordings, posters and photos in the Masse collection, now the property of the city of Limoges. And you can see the book Harlem à Limoges on amazon.fr here.


Harlem à Limoges: a jazz colloquium .. a rhino and a lion

Here’s an itinerary: fly to Paris from New York. Take a train from Aeroport Charles DeGaulle to the lovely Gare Austerlitz, which shares space with a natural history museum and features this lovely beast.

At Gare Austerlitz

Après le rhino, continue by train to the colloquium Harlem à Limoges, celebrating the Hot Club of Limoges (1948-2018) and beautifully programmed by Anne Legrand. There is also a vast and well organized exhibition at the public library. Information in French here.

Anne Legrand at the Bibliothèque francophone multimédia de Limoges 

Historians presented 16 papers at the colloquium, most in French. For example, the scholar Ludovic Florin talked about Willie “the Lion” Smith, one of the original stride pianists. Born this month (November) in 1897 and a child of Newark, NJ, Smith enlisted in the Great War in 1916. He served as a Harlem Hellfighter in the trenches of Champagne. Florin says Smith was decorated — maybe twice — for his courage.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In response to the above para, Anne Legrand writes Smith wasn’t with the Harlem Hellfighters but with another regiment, the 350th [Field Artillery], and the leader of the band was Tim Brymn and his Black Devils. 

There’s more about Brymn on Wikipedia, here.

In 1950 Smith returned to France to perform for the Hot Club of Limoges. The poster is below. Florin concluded his paper with a recording of Smith playing his “Echoes of Spring” which always makes me cry.

Tuesday 10 January (1950) onstage at 9:00 at the Capitole, Willie “The Lion” Smith

Mahler, Monk, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Saturday afternoon Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, worldwide via the German orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall. The performance was detailed, subtle and spectacular, and the moment the music ended, the audience let out  a huge cheer! Me too, in my living room, watching the livestream.

Then that night I was equally rewarded by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with new arrangements by the pivotal composer, Thelonious Monk, live in Rose Theater. All but one or two were premieres, most written by players in the band. Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis wrote two and was a frequent and welcome soloist in other people’s arrangements.

(Factoid: piece for piece, Monk’s music is arguably more recorded than Ellington’s, as I learned at the jazz talk prior to the concert.)

As host/saxophonist Ted Nash said from the stage, “We like to write for each other, to challenge each other.” The arrangers embedded lines from Monk’s recorded solos into their writing, playing hide-and-seek with the advantage going to those who know the originals in detail.

Four arrangements came from young people outside the band. One in particular — Matt Wong’s new vision of North of the Sunset from the Solo Monk album — stands out.

This transcription* of Monk’s solo recording shows the North of the Sunset melody …  

True to how  Monk wrote and played it, Wong   separated some phrases with .. silence! Full stops, no new sound, just space for a few beats. It was startling, and fun.

More than once during The JALC Plays Monk, the arrangers used the creative technique of divvying up a melody and handing it back as a sequence of phrases from section to section, player to player. To my ear Wong went further and made North of the Sunset into a fugue with overlapping voices. Then Wynton Marsalis’s solo drew the blues out of the song. And to close, Wong floated an  unconventional coda, not obviously tethered to North of the Sunset yet swimming in the same notes.

Here’s the full exhilarating program:

Eronel arranged by Victor Goines … solos by Carlos Henriquez, bass, and Goines, clarinet

Let’s Cool One arranged by Marcus Printup … Paul Nedzela, baritone sax; Dan Nimmer, piano

Shuffle Boil arranged by Ali Jackson … Sherman Irby, alto sax; Vincent Gardner, trombone

Misterioso with Round Midnight arranged by Jihye Lee … Marcus Printup, trumpet; Dan Nimmer, piano

North of the Sunset arranged by Matt Wong … Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Ted Nash, alto sax

Well, You Needn’t arranged by Sherman Irby …  Camille Thurman, tenor sax; Elliot Mason, trombone; Joe Farnsworth, drums


Off Minor arranged by Wynton Marsalis … Dan Nimmer, piano; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet

Friday the 13th arranged by Kenny Rampton … Vincent Gardner, trombone; Kenny Rampton, trumpet

Ruby My Dear arranged by Joseph Block … Wynton Marsalis, trumpet

Ugly Beauty arranged by Wynton Marsalis … Dan Nimmer, piano

Little Rootie Tootie arranged by Esteban Castro … Sherman Irby, alto sax

Jackie-ing arranged by and featuring Ted Nash, alto sax, and the saxophone section

From Mahler to Monk, this was a Musical day.


Thanks to Chris Donnelly. His Monk transcriptions are a great resource, here. And if you’d like to read my notes about Chick Corea with the Jazz at Lincoln Center, go here.

Frank Carlberg and Johnny O’Neal Play Monk

Thelonious Monk’s 101st birthday month is almost over. Here in New York the re-invention has continued.

On Monday, October 8, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, led by a native of Finland now based in Brooklyn, played music from the album Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares (no punctuation) at Dizzy’s Club.

For the long arcs of the pieces, the Monk themes and memes as incidentals, the fearless and appealing broken octaves that persisted through the set, the solos and the quiet endings, I would see this band again.

There is also text. Dark text as Christine Correa recites/sings Abide With Me — the hymn is played piano-free on Monk’s Music (1958) —  interjecting the phrase “Thelonious is dead” and referring to a winter night (he died February 17, 1982).

Maybe the Carlberg arrangement of Round Midnight overwhelms the song within, but Kurt Knuffke delivered a strong and original solo on cornet.

Everybody delivers, and I would try this band again! Expecting to be uneasy some of the time. (There’s a sample here.)

On Saturday night, the 13th, I was again on a barstool, this time at Smoke with two ardent Norwegian fans/friends who have followed and presented jazz for decades. We came for the Thelonious Monk Celebration featuring the Johnny O’Neal Quintet. The leader plays the piano of my dreams. On Monk’s I Mean You, I thought I heard a dash of Erroll Garner though I could see not a trace of effort. On Ask Me Now, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart’s playing and pleading summoned the memory of Johnny Hodges in the Ellington Orchestra. O’Neal’s voice is another pleasure. I wish I could find the words — he certainly can — though he left Monk behind when he sang A Sunday Kind of Love. Then came Alfie, Blue Monk, and a guest vocalist joining for La Belle Vie. Poof! It was over. Smoke is intimate. That’s why people love it. The next audience was lining up outside. I don’t live in Norway; I’ll be back.

There’s a feature about O’Neal’s CD In the Moment from Smoke Sessions here.




Miles Okazaki and WORK at the Jazz Gallery

The guitarist has released an album of all Monk’s tunes. He calls it WORK and, introducing Miles Okazaki on Friday night at the Jazz Gallery, the MC said it’s the first album with all the pianist’s compositions in one place. Onstage, drummer Damion Reid was Okazaki’s partner, but his 70-track album WORK is solo.

Here are the Monk compositions that I think I heard in the first set: Locomotive, Worry Later (San Francisco Holiday), Misterioso, Introspection, Gallops Gallop (introduced by the guitarist), and — after a piece that I couldn’t identify — Crepuscule with Nellie. Work, the piece, was somewhere in the two sets that I heard but I can’t tell you where. No apparent set lists, just flow.

I love the concept and though it’s not unique to Okazaki, he is a fine practitioner. He gets inside a song, hears the parts and then proceeds to repeat, reduce, reflect, refract, rephrase, reorder, invert, inflate, combine …

The album with complete audio is on https://okazakiwork.bandcamp.com/releases

As with Steelonious (see the next post), there’s no piano — Monk’s instrument — in WORK. Now I’m on my way to the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble for Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Steelonious: Taking the Piano out of Monk Tunes

In my phone I have a fake book in pdf format, with hand-printed lead sheets for almost 70 Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) compositions, from Ask Me Now to Worry Later. I’m trying to learn them.

So two Sundays ago my friend Marian Eines (of the brass band Zlatne Uste) and I met up at Barbès (small music room that often features brass bands) in Brooklyn for Mike Neer on lap steel guitar with music from his album Steelonious. Thelonious played piano.

Monk compositions are jazz essentials — the canon inside the canon — and Steelonious sings them with new voices and dances to different beats.

Epistrophy anticipates trumpeter Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder (a generation later). Ask Me Now has a sweet coda. In Off Minor, drummer Diego Voglino seems to conjure Gene Krupa. Nutty is a reggae. I Mean You is “Texas style,” in Neer’s words, and Round Midnight is “soft and pretty” with a wisp of Hawaii.

Just when I decide that Neer’s steel soars above and guitarist Nate Radley stays more rhythmic, they switch. Matt Lavoca on bass responds to everyone, always adjusting. Steelonious blows new air through Monk’s tunes.

Straight No Chaser has a march beat, Misterioso a bossa. The steel and the guitar divide the melody between them. To close, they play In Walked Bud but not at the original jaunty tempo. Slower.

Soon I’ll go to the Jazz Gallery for guitarist Miles Okazaki, whose solo album Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, has iron — not steel — on the cover. It’s a picture of train tracks crossing in Rocky Mount, NC, where Monk grew up.



Log cabins and stone buildings on the U.P.

The angle of the sun changes around Labor Day, and that’s when — with a half dozen independent-minded friends — I migrated north to Upper Michigan and ferried to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

We stayed two nights in the not-fancy lodge there. The rooms feature wide windows onto Lake Superior.

We hiked along Tobin Harbor to Scoville Point. Whether the path was stony or packed earth, hilly or flat along the water, it was quiet! And fun to briefly meet hikers coming back from several nights on the trail.

After the island, we relocated to Keweenaw National Historical Park outside Copper Harbor. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed Keweenaw in the 1930s with a grand lodge and a couple dozen cabins.

I sigh as I wish today’s federal government would conserve land today.

Changes are ahead. In July, Keweenaw was auctioned and sold to pay a $1.5 million debt to the US Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The new owner comes from Texas. He says he loves the Upper Peninsula. I hope he can keep Keweenaw natural and affordable.

We drove to Calumet where the extraordinary, century-old  buildings were glowing in afternoon light. This beauty, built in 1900 at 330 Fifth Street and most recently a bank, appears to be for sale or recently sold. Touch the stones; they’re warm.

As I walked the two long main streets, marveling at the masonry, the opening words to a Woody Guthrie song crept in my mind: “Take a trip with me in 1913 to Calumet Michigan in the copper country …”

It’s the story of a Christmas Eve fire in the Italian Hall. Trying to escape, striking copper miners’ children were killed. I still feel the sadness. Calumet was lightly populated for my visit.