During the transition from the Korean War to the Vietnam War, John Evans was a 19-year-old student. In 1959, the Charleston native was a sophomore at North Carolina A&T, studying biology in class but obsessing over jazz outside of it. He was an avid Down Beat reader and loved talking to veterans of the Korean War who had seen jazz in the big cities. They told him stories of his heroes—Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk principal among them—and their mythic status only grew.
Early that same year, Thelonious Monk was preparing to return to the stages of New York. In 1958, after police in Delaware discovered heroin in a car he was sharing with a saxophonist and his longtime patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he'd lost his New York cabaret card for a second time in a decade and been banished from the city's stages.
His comeback was going to be grand: Hall Overton, a faculty member at the Julliard School of Music, had been commissioned to arrange six Monk tunes for a big band, a tentet, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra. Monk's Orchestra would premiere at Town Hall in Manhattan at the end of February. As Eddie Bert—who joined the orchestra with his trombone for the show—remembers it, Overton treated each instrument like one of Monk's fingers. Such arrangement allowed the spirit of Monk's music, which was more rooted in gospel and blues than Western classical ideas of melody and harmony, to remain intact.
The orchestra premiered on Feb. 28, and it was the night that Evans' love for jazz was confirmed. He was dating a Brooklyn girl at the time, and he planned a visit north when he heard about the concert. She scored the tickets, and he remembers simply sitting in awe. Almost five decades later, he gushes about the stage set-up, the soloists, the way the Orchestra took these tunes he knew by heart and played them "note for note on a much bigger scale": "Many people in the black community didn't think jazz was on par with other forms of music," says Evans, now a 67-year-old middle school administrator in Framingham, Mass., 20 miles west of Worcester. "I didn't believe that, but I heard it. But this concert ... told me jazz was on par with any other artistic expression possible through music."
Those sort of epiphanies can't be replicated, but Evans has relived that night countless times. He's worn the grooves away from three copies of the record, and now he owns it on CD. But that album, made with an early stereo recorder, misses some of the night's sounds. Certain instruments—the French horn, for instance—are inaudible during portions of the show. Sound problems have always discouraged would-be transcribers of Monk's music for tentet.
Enter Sam Stephenson: In 1998, Stephenson was ensconced in the University of Arizona archives of W. Eugene Smith, the Life photojournalist responsible for some of the most telling photos of World War II and for popularizing the photo essay as a form. Stephenson was researching his first book on Smith (he's since finshed another) when he noticed the handwritten labels on 1,740 reel-to-reel tapes in Smith's archive. He spotted names like Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and Gerry Mulligan. He had to listen. Only photo archivists had researched Smith's collection, and these reels were made after Smith quit Life in 1955. It was a period, then, that didn't interest most researchers. But Stephenson found an otherwise-forgotten radio recording of a conversation between James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and tapes of late-night talk shows where people describe being abducted by aliens. As Stephenson puts it, it's a rich audio history from "mid-century, post-war, pre-suburban American folklore ... even without jazz [the tapes would] still be important."
But there was jazz, and that's how Evans returns to the story. In the '50s, Smith wired his building at 821 Sixth Ave. in Manhattan with microphones. He recorded what happened below in a jazz rehearsal room, the same room that Monk's Orchestra used for rehearseals. The sessions detail the work process of a musician who didn't talk about that stuff. Of the 3,000 hours of tape, Stephenson says, this session is "the most historic thing, among many."
"Jazz is portrayed as music that's magical, that just comes out of someone's head," says Stephenson. "And what these reveal is there was some magic coming out of someone's head, but there was also several months of obsessive effort and false starts and overcoming them and a relentless amount of work that went into it."
Last year, Ken Jacobs—the director of advanced development at Bose's headquarters in Framingham, Mass.—heard about the tapes from a sound engineer at the Library of Congress. When he heard that the tapes contained rehearsals from Monk's Town Hall show—the concert his father-in-law, John Evans, had attended in 1959—he had to hear them. He called Stephenson, and, last May, Stephenson gave an audience of a few hundred a listen. Evans was there, alongside Jacobs. He says he still wonders sometimes if everything since he heard those tapes that day has been a dream.
"I have to punch myself sometimes," he says. "To me, a jazz fan craves what's behind the scenes—how they talked and their exchanges. ... This is a Mount Rushmore for jazz."
These practice recordings improve on many aspects of the concert recording, and their superior sound has finally allowed for complete transcription. Earlier this year, Stephenson and Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald began searching for the best big band to recreate the night. Trumpeter Charles Tolliver attended the original Town Hall concert, and his band, says Stephenson, was a natural choice.
David Weiss, another trumpeter in Tolliver's big band, visited Duke in May, listened to the tapes and transcribed the night's music. Friday afternoon, Evans and Jacob will fly to North Carolina to hear the Charles Tolliver Orchestra premiere its version of Monk's Orchestra Saturday night.
In some way, Evans gets to relive that night of 48 years ago: "Sam said he was going to do something with the music at Duke, and I was willing to walk there and hear as much as I could. I'll be walking on air."
Charles Tolliver Orchestra revists Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert at Duke University's Page Auditorium Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-$38.