The Troy Street Observer

Mar 13, 1950: “The High Priest of Bebop” at the Hi-Hat

Thelonius Monk first worked in Boston with Coleman Hawkins at the Savoy, in March 1944. Six years later he returned to Boston, this time as the headliner, for a weeklong stay at the Hi-Hat, opening on March 13.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonius Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

George Clarke, of the Daily Record, mentioned that Monk was in town in his March 18 column. He reported that “If you want to see what a real be-bopper looks like, take a run out to the Hi-Hat where, at the moment, one Thelonius Monk, who calls himself “the high priest of bebop,” is holding forth, be-bop hat, horn-rimmed glasses, tiny goatee, and all…. Thelonius—and he swears that’s his real name—claims to antedate Dizzy Gillespie and all other exponents of musical double-talk, saying he was bopping, or maybe beeping, way back in 1932.”

Yes, Clarke was insulting, but it doesn’t do much good to complain about a columnist’s ignorance 65 years after the fact. He was, most likely, operating in the “bebop-as-gimmick” fog common in mainstream media at the time; perhaps he even considered as legitimate the greeting exchanged by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter in pages of Life magazine in October 1948. And Clarke was a newspaperman of an earlier time, who loved the Harlemania bands of Ellington and Calloway and never had much use for modern jazz.

But back to Monk. Pianist Hi Diggs, a member of Clarence Jackson’s Four Notes of Rhythm, one of the early Hi-Hat house bands, recalled that Monk visit in a 1988 interview with Dan Kochakian.

“One particular week, Thelonius Monk had been booked in and I don’t think poor Julie (club owner Julie Rhodes) was ready for him. Come rehearsal time, Monk sat down at the piano and played to a small group of people who were there at the time. Julie was not to be considered a square, but when Monk started playing some of his own sounds, poor Julie was completely baffled. Now I’m not the hippest guy in town, but I knew that what Monk was putting down was really bad and when Monk turned to his audience and asked, “You dig?” Julie turned to me and asked, “Is he really good?” I put on my hippest look and said, “He’s a genius,” which of course he was and for the sake of this gig, I was convincing.”

Monk was booked as a single, and he used Boston musicians. One was Joe Gordon. When fellow trumpeter Don Stratton asked Joe what it was like to work with Monk, Gordon replied, “I don’t know, he hasn’t finished dancing yet.”

Bazeley “Bey” Perry was on drums. Gordon and Perry were in a bop band working regularly at Louie’s Lounge in early 1950, and I’m guessing Martin “Gator” Rivers, the group’s bassist, was also at the Hi-Hat. Was there a saxophonist? If so, that Louie’s band had two: Sam Rivers (Gator’s brother) and Gladstone Scott. Somehow, if it was Sam Rivers, I think we’d know, because Sam talked often about his Boston years and Monk never came up. Less is known about Scott, whom Rivers compared to Lucky Thompson.

Monk stayed at the Hi-Hat for a week and then returned to New York. It would be almost ten years before he had a return engagement in Boston, and it ended badly, at Grafton State Hospital.

About a year after Monk’s Boston visit, he recorded the lovely “Ask Me Now” for the first time. Here Monk plays a solo version of that tune.

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