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Charles Tolliver: Monk at Town Hall

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By Charles Tolliver

Thelonious Monk was and is a central and seminal figure, along with Bird and Diz, et. al., responsible for the creation and growth of the jazz idiom. His patented and innovative stride-intervallic improvisatorial style was inextricably tied to his harmonic genius as a composer. In fact, nearly all of these original innovators possessed this quality. At the dawn of the creation of modern jazz in the early '40s, Monk had already worked out how to utilize certain musical theoretical formulas—II-IV-I, flatted V, whole and half-scale use, substitute and passing chords— in ways that would become substantive underpinnings for all jazz improvisation and composition then, now and forever. Diz has said that looking over Monk's shoulders at his voicings during those fertile creative years informed us harmonically by sight and ear that we were on track with the new approach to improvisation and composition.

Perhaps one of the most enduring qualities of Thelonious Monk, already immediately apparent circa the early '40s, was his innovative use of dominant seventh, tritone, whole tone and minor second harmonies in constructing his compositions. Albeit diatonic, his compositional technique however not only suggested and anticipated but was in the forefront of what is now commonly referred to as 'outside,' much the same as the similar feat accomplished by Bartok with his new idiom- shattering compositional language that did not rely on a hubristic use of dodecaphony.

Since the original orchestrations by Hal Overton of the six Monk compositions premiered at Town Hall, February 28th, 1959 were lost many years ago, the Directors of Duke Performances and The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University asked me to recreate the scores. I completed the entire transcription in 2007. Even though an opportunity had been offered to listen to newly found recording tapes of the actual rehearsals for the Monk Town Hall concert, I decided not to give a listen to them because I wanted to recreate his orchestra's actual visceral reading of Hal Overton's orchestrations exactly as the performance of them was captured, notwithstanding the difficulty of gleaning a precise ur-text transcription from the recorded LP with respect to the near inaudibility of the low-horn instruments in many passages. In order to pull that off necessitated a total working 'inside' chordal and nuance knowledge of Monk's compositions pianistically. Suffice it to say that even though it was a daunting task working on this historic project, it gave me a great deal of pleasure while doing it, reliving and remembering how I absorbed Thelonious Monk during my formative teenage years and how and why I fell in love with what was to become my life's work, being a jazz musician.

To be called on to present once again, in its entirety, the 50th anniversary celebration of Monk's 1959 Town Hall orchestra repertoire program is indeed an honor.

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