(b Rocky Mount, NC, November 10, 1917; d Englewood, New Jersey, February 17, 1982)
Pianist, composer. Collaborated with loft resident Hall Overton.
On April 21, 1955, loft resident and musician Dick Cary wrote, “Thelonious Monk and gang upstairs.” Upstairs was Hall Overton’s loft space. Cary had the third floor, Overton the back half of the fourth. This is the earliest record of Monk and Overton working together. They were preparing for an event at the 92nd Street Y on April 23, billed as a “Modern Jazz Festival,” headlined by the First Jazz Sextet, which featured Charles Mingus, Kenny Clarke, Art Farmer, Eddie Bert, Teo Macero, and Hall Overton, with “Special Guest: Thelonious Monk.” This was the “gang upstairs.” If Smith had been living there then we might have a tape of that evening, but he didn’t move in until 1957. Smith did, however, thoroughly document the preparations by Monk and Overton for historic concerts by Monk’s big bands at Town Hall in 1959, Lincoln Center in 1963, and Carnegie Hall in 1964. Smith’s tapes reveal a unique relationship between the two musicians and an extraordinary level of craft, discipline, and practice—traits that are generally more often attributed to classical music than improvised jazz— required to perform those concerts.
“I think it was Hall who called me [to join Monk’s Town Hall band],” said French horn player Robert Northern (also known as Brother Ah). “Monk spoke very little. He would’ve never picked up the phone and called me. Overton called me and said that we were preparing for a performance. I asked him a little bit about the music. He said, ‘Well, we’re gonna transcribe Monk’s piano music into a large ensemble.’ Nobody had ever done that before. I knew it was going to be really interesting and a challenge. I knew I was going to be playing with some of the musicians I had always admired. So I didn’t hesitate. The only thing that I did hesitate about was that rehearsals started at three a.m. That was the only time that everybody could make it. It was after the clubs had closed. Everybody (in the band) was playing some nightclub somewhere, you know, Birdland or the Royal Roost or something. So, between two and three, people began to congregate in Hall Overton’s loft. And by three-thirty or four we were well under way. And we were there until seven or eight in the morning rehearsing. I don’t think it would have been the same had it been somebody less than Monk. This was an occasion nobody would want to miss. I was teaching in the South Bronx, and I had to be at school by nine a.m.”
In a remarkable 1963 appearance with Overton at the New School in New York, Overton asked Monk to demonstrate his technique of “bending” or “curving” notes on the piano, the most rigidly tempered of instruments. Monk drawled notes like a human voice and blended them (playing notes C and C-sharp at the same time, for example) to create his own dialect. Overton told the audience, “That can’t be done on piano, but you just heard it.” He then explained that Monk achieved it by adjusting his finger pressure on the keys, the way baseball pitchers do to the ball to make its path bend, curve, or dip in flight. It is doubtful that Monk would have made this public appearance with many—or any—people other than Overton.