A rare recording of Monk’s 1968 concert was shaping up to be one of the most exciting from-the-vaults musical releases of 2020…until it fell into legal limbo.

An eccentric jazz master. An ambitious local high school student. An enterprising janitor.

Yes, the story behind the little-known recording of Thelonious Monk’s 1968 concert at Palo Alto High School is a fascinating tale with no shortage of compelling characters. It is also a local history that was poised to culminate this week with the rare concert recording being formally released as an official Thelonious Monk live album, simply though appropriately titled—Palo Alto.

The cover art for Thelonious Monk’s “Palo Alto” live album, recorded live at Palo Alto High School in 1968. (Image courtesy Impulse! Records)

But in an additional twist to the long-shotstoryline surrounding Monk’s Peninsula performance, the album’s July 31st release was derailed earlier this week by an 11th-hour legal dispute between record labels.

“They’re not saying it’s delayed,” explains Palo Alto native Danny Scher, who organized Monk’s Paly show as a student over a half-century ago. “They’re saying we’ll let you know if it’s being released, not when.”

Whether the album will ever actually see the light of day is now just one more curious component to the legacy of an unlikely local event that showcased a musical legend…in a high school auditorium.

All that jazz

If you’ve been to Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, you’re already familiar with Danny Scher’s music-industry legacy. During his nearly quarter-century working at the renowned Northern California concert promoting company Bill Graham Presents, Scher not only developed and launched Shoreline but also booked for historic venues (such as Winterland), led the way for new venues to be built (including the Cal Expo in Sacramento) and produced beloved local music events (like Day on the Green and the New Orleans by the Bay festival).

Yet for all of his long-running legacy around rock music, Scher’s first musical love while growing up was jazz.

“I love Duke Ellington to this day. And I started out also listening to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie,” he said in a recent phone interview from his East Bay home. “So I was just a kid into jazz — really not into rock ’n’ roll until much later.”

As a student at Palo Alto High School (locally known as “Paly”), Scher already had two de facto mentors at the time: the late Herb Wong, jazz scholar/educator/producer and longtime Menlo Park resident, and Darlene Chan, founder and inaugural director of the Berkeley Jazz Festival.

(Image courtesy Impulse! Records)

“I said to them, ‘You know, my two idols are Monk and Duke,” Scher recalled. “And they said, ‘Why don’t you call Monk? He’s coming to town.’”

So Scher contacted Jules Colomby, Monk’s manager and, amazingly, secured a contract for an afternoon concert at Palo Alto High School while the renowned bandleader was in San Francisco for a run at the Jazz Workshop club in North Beach.

Suddenly, Scher found himself—as a junior in high school—needing to orchestrate a high-profile concert featuring a world-famous musician.

Paly performance

Scher quickly got to work. First, he enlisted the services of his older brother Les—whose love of jazz was his own gateway to the American art form—to serve as the band’s driver. Then, Scher looked to fill the venue.

“The ticket price was $2 for general admission and $1.50 for students. And even then, that was really cheap,” Scher said. Worried about having an empty house — or, in his case, school auditorium — he knew he had to diversify his offerings.

He created a concert program and sold advertising slots to local businesses such as Dana Morgan’s Music Store, the local travel agency his parents patronized and the florist from whom he bought flowers for his mother’s birthday.

(Image courtesy Impulse! Records)

“So if no one shows up, at least there’s enough money to pay Monk,” he explained.

The forward-thinking upperclassman also reckoned it would be wise to expand his potential audience beyond the city limits.

“I get posters made by the high school graphic arts department, and I’m putting them up in East Palo Alto. And the police are telling me, ‘Hey, kid! You better get out of here. It’s not safe for you,’” he recalled. “This is a few months after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy got shot, and there was a lot of tension between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto,” he continued. “And I told them, ‘You know what? I’m going to be in bigger trouble if the show doesn’t do well.’”

Some potential audience members were skeptical that Monk would actually show up to play at a high school not known for its diverse student body. So Scher told them to just come to campus and buy a ticket when they saw Monk enter the venue. As Les Scher drove into the Paly parking lot with the top of Larry Gales’ contrabass sticking out of a rear window, “everyone who was waiting lines up and buys their ticket,” Scher said, “and the show was great.’’

Indeed, what ensued was magical. Monk’s working quartet at the time—featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, double bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley—was a group of polished veterans who, in Rouse’s and Riley’s case, would later extend their bandleader boss’s legacy with their own Monk-themed projects and recordings.

“They were on the road for years, and they were just a great band,” said Zev Feldman, a co-producer of the album.

The show itself — or at least the bootleg of it — lasted for around 47 minutes. Judging from the recording, the musicians on the bandstand had as good of a time as that afternoon’s audibly enthusiastic patrons. Monk had a reputation for sometimes being either aloof or playful in concert, and he sounds as if he was in the latter mood on originals-turned-standards “Ruby, My Dear,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Epistrophy” and a 14-minute version of the extra popular “Blue Monk.”

One of the school’s janitors offered to record the concert in exchange for the honor of tuning the piano Monk would be playing. Scher has held onto the resulting cassette tape, which he got digitized at the now-closed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. He eventually negotiated an agreement with T.S. Monk—Thelonious’ son and the manager of his father’s estate—about its release on Monk’s Centenary in 2017, just 10 days before the 49th anniversary of the concert.

“Blue Monk,” a track from the Thelonious Monk album “Thelonious Monk Alone in San Francisco,” recorded at Fugazi Hall in SF during the fall of 1959. During his concert at Paly years later, Monk played a 14-minute version of this composition. (Via Youtube)

Long lost…a little longer

“I’ve produced thousands of concerts,” Scher mused. “Who would’ve thought something I did 52 years ago, when I was in high school, would get this much publicity? … But I suppose it’s nice to have a feel-good story, especially given the times.”

But the fairytale ending has been suspended — for now, at least.

“I received word that there was a dispute between the estate and Monk’s previous label,” Scher said during a phone conversation on Monday, July 27. So the release has been taken off of the schedule indefinitely “due to circumstances beyond the label’s control,” according to a statement by Impulse! Records. Co-producer Feldman was unable to provide any further information at this time.

“I’ve held onto this recording for 50 years,” Scher said. “So I can hold onto it for another two or three decades.”

Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at [email protected]

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