When Thelonious Monk Came to New Zealand

This month saw the 100 birthday of legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, and there have been a lot of fascinating stories written about him all around the internet. I’ve been mulling over whether to share this story of him for a couple of months now, in part because I cannot confirm if one part of this story actually happened the way I’ve been told it did, and my information is third-hand at best.

In 1965 the Chamber Music Society of New Zealand (the predecessor to Chamber Music New Zealand) sponsored a tour by the Thelonious Monk Quartet of New Zealand. This tour was originally meant to be a double bill with Dave Brubeck, but there was some sort of falling out between them and, according to correspondence held in the Dave Brubeck Collection at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California, it was decided that Brubeck would make a separate tour of New Zealand later in the year.

This was the first time that the Chamber Music Society had sponsored a tour by a jazz artist and they were anxious that it would all go smoothly, and that it would not provoke too much controversy among their subscribers. The first concert in Auckland on April 7 1965 was something of a puzzle for the reviewers (in part because it was not quite what they were expecting), but jazz fans and musicians who attended were enthusiastic in their praise.

Now comes the part that I cannot confirm, but it is plausible that the events happened as I’m about to describe.

After the concert the Society members who arranged the tour went to the hotel that Monk and his Quartet were staying at so they could congratulate Monk and celebrate the successful concert. They knocked on his door and Monk (supposedly) answered it naked except for his signature hat. They were so taken aback that they apparently did not know what to do. In any case Monk invited them in to talk over the concert that night and the other concerts that were planned.

This supposed incident was used for quite a long time as to why the Chamber Music Society and later Chamber Music New Zealand did not tour jazz musicians even when jazz became known as a serious concert music. How much truth there is to this story? Well, I have no idea. It is not outside the realm of possibility as Monk was renowned for his eccentric behaviour in the 1960s (a result of undiagnosed mental health issues). Also given the overt conservativeness of the Chamber Music Society in the same period I cannot say that they wouldn’t have felt that it was too risky and risqué to tour jazz musicians. Perhaps one day some evidence will come to light to either confirm or deny this tale.

 

Happy 100th Birthday Thelonious Sphere Monk- you sure did make an impact on the New Zealand jazz scene one way or another!

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3 comments

  1. Hi Alesisha
    I remember talking abut this with John Good around 10 years ago. He thought that while Monk was the best choice (musically) at the same time he was the worst. I forget what other artists they were considering… pretty sure it was the Oscar Peterson trio, or perhaps the MJQ (they did come out at some stage… I think in the 60s). John was sure that if one of these groups were picked then the Chamber Music Society would have continued to book jazz, but unfourtunately the Monk experience scared them away. I have heard the “naked but for the hat” story and I think there were some other problems too.
    Keep up the good work
    Adam

  2. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for your comment! Yes there were quite possibly other issues- Monk wasn’t the easiest person to deal with even at the best of times. If Brubeck had been on the bill as planned things may have gone more smoothly. I always found it interesting that they approached Monk for this tour rather than as you say MJQ or Oscar Peterson, either of whom would have better fitted the Chamber Music Society’s ethos and been easier to interact with.

  3. Monk came to Wellington twice on the Chamber Music tour – I saw both concerts. The Society stalwarts were a bit bemused – one told me he though the “syncopation was very clever”. For years afterwards at various flat parties I used to do the famous Monk revolving shuffle (performed while he sat out Rouse’s solos).

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