A few weeks ago, at a record fair, I picked up an album I’d never seen before. It was simply marked as Jazz Immortals: Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk [sic]. Those were the only words on the cover, and that was enough to convince me to buy the record then and there.
I didn’t realize how significant this album is until I got home, put the record on the turntable, and read the full credits. Though liner note author Leonard Feather hardly mentions Monk (not using his name until the final ten lines of the roughly 200-line notes, and even then, misspelling it), this album is very important for featuring the earliest captured recordings of Thelonious Monk, according to Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (New York: Free Press, 2009). In addition to capturing the young Mr. Monk, this recording also may be the very finest documentation of the true inception of bebop.
It was recorded in1941 at Minton’s Playhouse Monroe’s Uptown House by Jerry Newman, a young Columbia student with portable recording equipment who recorded the house bands at these two clubs as often as he could in the early 40s. While it is amazing to have the archival recordings of these innovative, explorative jam sessions, Newman’s recordings are not without controversy. Newman recorded these musicians (who were ecstatic to hear their music played back) with no intention of ever sharing any profits. When the recordings were issued originally on the Vox and Esoteric labels, no musician saw a dime (Kelley, 71).
Despite its shady origins, the music presented here is priceless, both for historical value and for sheer entertainment. The chromaticism, uneven rhythmic lines, playfulness, and individuality Monk was known for are evident even at this young age. Additionally, Monk shines with some virtuosic runs, the kind of showing off he had lost interest in by the 1950s. And Dizzy, at just 19 years old, sounds as fresh and exciting as ever. His thirst for new sounds comes out in full force with the unexpected scales he chooses over certain harmonies. Dizzy also shows his deep knowledge of the tradition, playing melodies that are steeped in history and exploring new ground all at once.
And, of course, I cannot underplay the import of Charlie Christian, the man with top billing here. Charlie Christian was perhaps the most influential guitarist in jazz of all time. He turned the guitar into a member of the lead line, not just a rhythmic element. But, outside of the world of guitarists, Christian also was a major influence on bebop soloists on any instrument. His solos were always filled with new, impressive runs and harmonic experiments.
One very curious element of the recording is the presence of a tune named “Kerouac.” While Jack Kerouac’s significance in jazz is well-known, it did not come about until the mid-1950s. This album was recording in 1941, when Jack Kerouac was still playing football at Columbia. I’ve yet to discover the meaning behind this title.
While it is also a futile effort to define the moment of inception of a new genre or school or thought, Minton’s and Monroe’s in 1940 and 1941 are widely considered the beginning of this thing called bebop, the precursor to all of modern jazz. But even these recordings don’t capture everything. The opening track even begins in the middle of a chorus. Even though it’s just a brief glimpse into another time, that night in Minton’s and Monroe’s were amazing and any glimpse should be greatly appreciated.
The album has since been remastered and issued on CD by the Essential Media Group (with Monk’s name spelled correctly!). It can be found here: