In 1968, a student at Palo Alto High School near San Francisco had the idea to present a jazz concert. Danny Scher was in charge of organizing school dances, but he was a huge jazz fan. To Danny, it seemed like a reasonable idea to try hiring the Thelonious Monk Quartet, one of the top acts in the heady era of ’60s jazz. Although the odds were against him, 16-year-old Scher made an agreement with Monk, put up flyers, sold tickets, produced the event, and — fortunately for the music world — let the school custodian record the concert. The recording is now available for all to hear [Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto, 2020, Impulse].
Whenever new recordings from the masters of the classic jazz era come to light, it’s cause for celebration. Monk’s legacy extends from the bebop era of the ’40s through the late ’60s, and this live recording from Palo Alto High School captures Monk toward the end of his career. Despite being a jazz legend, Monk was no longer considered cutting-edge at the time; he was a holdover from the bebop era. But bassist Larry Gales, 32 years old at the time, was at the top of his game. Along with drummer Ben Riley, they formed one of Monk’s most adventurous rhythm sections. The musicians seemed to dig the high school environment at Palo Alto. The band was on fire — everyone was stretching out and playing as if they knew this might be one of their last gigs together.
Gales plays a standout solo on the Monk composition “Well, You Needn’t.” He picks up the bow at 5:50 for his solo ride over the angular harmony. Gales sounds like he’s listened to Paul Chambers — the reigning jazz bowing master of the day — but he’s reaching for new sounds and stretching the boundaries of his technique. Great players always play within their technique, but Gales captures the dangerous edge that makes a solo exciting — the reckless abandon that lures the audience into the mind of the improvisor.
The 32-bar harmonic structure of “Well, You Needn’t” is simple yet quirky. The A sections rock back and forth from a bar of F7 to a bar of Gb7; the Gb7 acts as a dominant, always pulling back into F7. The bridge provides a source of confusion, even to this day.
Monk’s original bridge — first recorded in 1947 — starts with two bars of Db7, followed by two bars of D7, and then it moves up and down chromatically (Ex. 1). The tricky part is in the last bar of the bridge: The chords move down to B7 on beat one before hitting the C7 on beat three. This is one of the black holes of jazz! Not many players clearly outline the B7 in this spot.
Trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis took a different approach to the bridge when he recorded his slow-walking version of “Well, You Needn’t” in 1954, with Percy Heath on bass. Starting a tritone away from the original Db7, Miles’ changes move up and down from G7 (Ex. 2). Note that the pattern of dominant chords ascends one half-step higher than on the Monk version, changing where the descending pattern starts. Miles’ comfortable version of the harmony features changes that end up on an improvisor-friendly G7 to C7 in the bridge’s last bar. No wonder the Miles Davis interpretation showed up in the original Real Book in the ’70s, inspiring generations of jazzers afterwards to play the “incorrect” changes, and Miles’ slightly-revised (read: wrong) melody. Check out Miles’ version! Want to be the hip kid at your next jam session? When they call “Well, You Needn’t,” ask if they prefer the Miles changes or the original Monk changes on the bridge. Your bebop-nerd street cred will spike, and you’ll get bonus points if you cite the dates of the various versions.
Let’s look at Larry Gales’ bowed solo on “Well, You Needn’t.” Gales springs out of the gate with a few pizzicato notes, and then he grabs the bow. His bowed sound is raw, but the content is compelling. He repeatedly uses the F dominant and F major scale sounds over the A sections. In bars 9–14, Gales shifts the rhythm of the scale passages over the bar lines, suggesting a Monk-ish approach to the eighth-notes, reminiscent of the Monk standard “Straight, No Chaser.”
In the bridge, Gales outlines all of the dominant chords with basic chord tones and an aggressive rhythmic feeling. In bar 24, he skates through the B7, playing more of a C7-sounding line through the whole bar. It works because he’s playing with great confidence, plowing through his melodic line — and also because Monk doesn’t outline the B7 at that moment. Gales solos for four more choruses, pushing hard with relentlessly swinging eighth-notes.
To learn this solo, listen to the recording several times. Then start slowly, using the bow markings that are indicated. Note that Gales sometimes slurs two notes together to create a swinging forward motion. Although the bowings are approximations of what he played, the swing feeling in the eighth-notes is the important element in this solo. Well, you needn’t play the solo with the bow if the fiddlestick is not your thing (see what I did there?). Whether you play pizz or arco, try to match the drive and swing delivered by Gales on this historic recording. –BM
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The Bassists Of Thelonious Monk — 7 Classic Recordings
1. Monk: Straight, No Chaser [1967, Columbia, Larry Gales on bass]
2. Live at the It Club [1964, Columbia, Larry Gales on bass]
3. Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane [1961, Jazzland, Wilbur Ware on bass]
4. Thelonious in Action — Live at the Five Spot [1958, Riverside, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass]
5. The Unique Thelonious Monk [1956, Riverside, Oscar Pettiford on bass]
6. Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2 [1952, Blue Note, Nelson Boyd and Al McKibbon on bass]
7. Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 — original version of “Well, You Needn’t” [1947, Blue Note, Gene Ramey and Bob Paige on bass]
Watch the Thelonious Monk Quartet live in Europe in 1966 with Gales holding it down and stretching out.
Gales plays “Hackensack” with Thelonious Monk on BBC television in 1965. Swinging, driving, angular, beautiful — that’s jazz!
His only recording as a bandleader, A Message From Monk is Gales’ 1991 tribute to his former employer.
John Goldsby managed to graduate from high school, and then he pursued his higher learning at the University of the Streets. Check out his video lesson series at DiscoverDoubleBass.com and johngoldsby.com.