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Monday, April 25, 2005

The New York Times > Arts > Music > A Jazz Discovery Adds a New Note to the Historical Record

The New York Times > Arts > Music > A Jazz Discovery Adds a New Note to the Historical Record: April 25, 2005
A Jazz Discovery Adds a New Note to the Historical Record

You might reasonably think that the recorded past of American music has been mapped out - that after all the academic books and scholared-up CD reissues, we know what's between A and Z. Of the important works, anyway. Ephemera will always keep rolling in, intensifying the reds and golds of the historical picture, broadening the context.

But now this: tapes bearing nearly a full hour of the Thelonious Monk quartet with John Coltrane, found at the Library of Congress in January. The library made the announcement this month.

The tapes come from a concert at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 29, 1957, a benefit for a community center. The concert was recorded by the Voice of America, the international broadcasting service, and the tapes also include sets by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, Ray Charles with a backing sextet, the Zoot Sims Quartet with Chet Baker, and the Sonny Rollins Trio. (Newspaper accounts of the concert indicate that Billie Holiday appeared as well, though she is not on the Voice of America tapes.)

But it is Monk with Coltrane that constitutes the real find. That band existed for only six months in 1957, mostly through long and celebrated runs at the East Village club the Five Spot. During this period, Coltrane fully collected himself as an improviser, challenged by Monk and the discipline of his unusual harmonic sense. Thus began the 10-year sprint during which he changed jazz completely, before his death in 1967. The Monk quartet with Coltrane did record three numbers in a studio in 1957, but remarkably little material, and only with fairly low audience-tape fidelity, is known to exist from the Five Spot engagement.

The eight and a half Monk performances found at the Library of Congress, by contrast, are professionally recorded, strong and clear; you can hear the full dimensions of Shadow Wilson's drum kit and Ahmed Abdul-Malik's bass. It is certainly good enough for commercial release, though none has yet been negotiated.

On the tapes, Monk is Monk, his pianistic style basically formed at least 10 years before, with its sudden drawls and rhythmic hesitations. He lets Coltrane solo at length with very little accompaniment; the saxophonist plays rows and rows of original licks and runs, built with blizzards of 16th notes. The notable exception is Coltrane's solo on "Blue Monk." Through 10 blues choruses, he builds an even crescendo of logic, letting down his guard and relying less on his stock phrases. (The other songs on the tape, from the evening's two sets, are "Monk's Mood," "Evidence," "Crepuscule With Nellie," "Nutty," "Epistrophy," "Bye-Ya," "Sweet and Lovely" and a truncated second version of "Epistrophy.")

The music was discovered by accident, during the routine practice of transferring tape from the Library of Congress's Voice of America collection to digital sound files for preservation. Larry Appelbaum, a studio engineer, supervisor and jazz specialist at the library, said that he was given a batch of about 100 tapes for digitization one day in January and looked to see what was there; among them he noticed a brown cardboard box for a 7½-inch reel, marked in pencil "sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (#1)," with no names on it. It piqued his interest, and one of the boxes holding the Carnegie tapes - there were eight in all - said "T. Monk." "It got my heart racing," Mr. Appelbaum said. (None of the tape boxes mentioned Coltrane.)

No bootleg recordings of the concert are known to exist, because even though it was recorded, it was not broadcast. The Coltrane specialist Lewis Porter knew of the tape's possible existence and inquired about it years ago, but after an initial search yielded nothing, Mr. Appelbaum said, he forgot about it completely. He was surprised to finally find it, of course, but his sense of surprise has been worn down over the years.

"There's always more," Mr. Appelbaum said sagely, in a recent interview in his recording laboratory at the Library of Congress's recorded sound division. He repeated the phrase so often during the afternoon that it became a mantra.

The Library of Congress holds the country's largest collection of sound recordings, and jazz of course forms only a tiny part of it. The full extent of several essential collections is thoroughly cataloged; they include everything ever recorded at the library's Coolidge Auditorium, including T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Robert Lowell reading their work, chamber music performances by the Budapest String Quartet, and Jelly Roll Morton singing and spieling for eight hours in 1938. All of John and Alan Lomax's famous field recordings are kept there as well.

But among the collections still being cataloged are the 50,000 Voice of America tapes, which for 40 years have been housed in a dark, climate-controlled room. The tapes constitute a valuable history of radio, and of music in New York. (The Voice of America also recorded every Newport Jazz Festival from 1955, its second year, to 1976, four years after the festival relocated from Rhode Island to New York City.) The cataloging has proceeded gradually, with first priority given to the most historically important and most physically fragile material.

Michael Gray, librarian and archivist at the Voice of America, which still operates out of Washington, confirms that in 1957, and for a long time after that, the broadcast service had access to the Carnegie Hall Recording Company's services. The Voice of America was allowed to record performances at Carnegie Hall free of charge, without paying the hall or the musicians, as long as it broadcast only overseas; this was regarded as public diplomacy through music. Of course, some musicians would not consent to be recorded, which is probably why there is no Billie Holiday on the tape.

Besides satisfying jazz fans, the discovery of the Monk tape has Gino Francesconi, Carnegie Hall's archivist since 1986, excited by the idea that much more of the hall's past may be preserved than he thought. "We knew that Voice of America recorded here," he said. "But we didn't have any formal documentation of it, and it's fantastic to know that they've discovered this." There's always more.


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