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Great Encounters #45: Miles and Monk at Newport, 1955

“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons.  This edition offers two accounts of the events surrounding Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk’s performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival — a story that is, according to Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, “shrouded in myth.”

 

Excerpted from Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

and

Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley

 

 

 

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Thelonious Monk (foreground) and Miles Davis (trumpet)…with saxophonist Gigi Gryce and drummer Max Roach at Tony’s in Brooklyn, March 1954

 

 

The following excerpt is from Miles:  The Autobiography

 

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     As much as I liked the music I was now doing, I think my name in the clubs was still shit, and a lot of critics probably still thought I was a junkie.  I wasn’t real popular at this time, but that began to change after I played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.  This was the first festival that this couple, Elaine and Louis Lorillard, got together.  They picked George Wein to produce it.  I think George was from Boston.  For the first festival George picked Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman and Dave Brubeck.  And then he had an All-Star band that had Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Monk, Percy Heath, Connie Kay; he later added me.  They played a couple of tunes without me and then I joined them on “Now’s the Time,” which was a tribute to Bird’s memory.  And then we played “’Round Midnight,” Monk’s tune.  I played it with a mute and everybody went crazy.  It was something.  I got a long standing ovation. When I got off the bandstand, everybody was looking at me like I was a king or something – people were running up to me offering me record deals.  All the musicians were treating me like I was a god, and all for a solo that I had had trouble learning a long time ago.  It was something else, man, looking out at all those people and then seeing them suddenly standing up and applauding for what I had done.

     They had all these parties that night in this big fucking mansion.  We all go there, and all these rich white people are everywhere.  I was sitting over in a corner, minding my own business, when the woman who had organized the festival, Elaine Lorillard, came over with all these grinning, silly-looking white people and said something like, “Oh, this is the boy who played so beautifully.  What’s your name?”

     Now she’s standing there smiling like she’s done me a fucking favor, right?  So I look at her and say, “Fuck you, and I ain’t no fucking boy!  My name is Miles Davis, and you’d better remember that if you ever want to talk to me.”  And then I walked away, leaving them all shocked as a motherfucker.  I wasn’t trying to be nasty or nothing like that, but she was calling me “boy,” and I just can’t take that kind of bullshit.

     So I left, me and Harold Lovett, who had come up there with me.  We got a ride back to New York with Monk and this was the only time that I got into an argument with him.  In the car he said that I hadn’t played “’Round Midnight” right that night.  I said that was okay, but that I didn’t like what he had played behind me either, but I hadn’t told him that, so why was he telling me all this shit?  So then I told him that the people liked it and that’s why they stood up and applauded like they did.  Then I told him that he must be jealous.

     Now when I told him this, I was kidding, because I was smiling.  But I guess he thought I was laughing at him, making fun of him, putting him on.  He told the driver to stop the car, and he got out.  Because I knew how stubborn Monk was – once he made up his mind about something, that was it, couldn’t nothing budge him – I told the driver something like, “Aw, fuck that motherfucker.  He’s crazy.  Let’s go.”  So we did.  We left Monk standing there where you catch the ferry, and drove back to New York.  The next time I saw Monk, it was like that shit had never happened.  Monk was like that sometimes, you know, weirder than a motherfucker.  And we never said anything else about that incident ever again.

 

 

The following excerpt is from Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of an American Original

 

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     …Monk’s star was rising but his income was not.  His next big gig paid very little, but the prestige and visibility it afforded more than compensated for this paltry wages.  George Wein, pianist and jazz impresario, invited Thelonious to be part of an all-star band at the Newport Jazz Festival in July.  Only in its second year, the brainchild of Wein and socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard had rapidly turned the sleepy, upper-class town of Newport, Rhode Island, into one of the jazz world’s most cherished events.  The band to which Monk was assigned was scheduled to play a short set on the last night of the festival, Sunday July 17, following performances by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Count Basie, just before Dave Brubeck.  In other words, they were an intermission band.  Wein conceived of the group as a quintet consisting of Thelonious, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and the rhythm section of the MJQ – Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay (who had replaced Kenny Clarke).  But a few weeks before the festival, Wein heard Miles Davis at Basin Street East in New York.  After the set, Davis pestered Wein to include him at Newport.  “You can’t have a jazz festival without me,” Miles said repeatedly.  So Wein relented and at the last minute added Davis to the line-up as part of Monk’s all-star band.  He was added so late, in fact, that his name did not appear in the program.

     The master of ceremonies was Duke Ellington.  Always eloquent and witty, Duke described the band as innovative musicians who “live in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach.”  He gave each a separate introduction, but showed particular warmth for Monk, whom he introduced as “The High Priest of Bop, the inimitable Thelonious Monk.”  And Monk returned the gesture, getting up from the piano bench to personally greet one of his all-time musical heroes.  The band then launched into “Hackensack,” playing the original melody – bridge and all – that Coleman Hawkins played when the song was known as “Rifftide.”  This time, Monk did not lay out when Miles soloed.  But Miles made sure the audience could hear him.  Aware of the faulty sound system (Wein fielded numerous complaints about the inadequate sound, calling it a “catastrophe”), Davis jammed the bell of his trumpet directly into the microphone.  Its full effect was clear on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.”

     Like everything else having to do with Monk and Miles, this rendition of “’Round Midnight” is shrouded in myth.  Historians, critics, musicians, even Miles himself, credits this performance with launching his “comeback” from a few uneven and unproductive years under the influence of heroin addiction.  Miles remembered getting “a long standing ovation.  When I got off the bandstand, everybody was looking at me like I was a king or something – people were running up to me offering me record deals.  All the musicians there were treating me like I was a god…”  The aural evidence paints a very different picture, however.  Miles plays tentatively during the introduction and opening melody, showing more confidence with each chorus.  When he ends his solo, the audience applauds, but it is neither sustained nor overly enthusiastic.

     Once again, the musical exchange between Monk and Miles was marred by tension.  After “’Round Midnight,” Miles asked Thelonious to lay out on the third and final song:  a bebop blues called “Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker.  When Miles came off the bandstand, the first thing he said to George Wein was “Monk plays the wrong changes to ‘Round Midnight.”  In the car on the way back to New York, Monk complained to Miles that he had not played “’Round Midnight” correctly.  Miles blew up, telling Thelonious “I didn’t like what he had played behind me either, but I hadn’t told him that, so why was he telling me all this shit?  So then I told him that the people liked it and that’s why they stood up and applauded like they did.  Then I told him that he must be jealous.”  Miles insisted afterward that he was just kidding, but the damage was done.  Angry and hurt, Thelonious had the driver stop the car.  He got out and walked to the ferry.

 

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Excerpted from Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

 

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and

 

Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley

 

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The 1955 Newport performance of “‘Round Midnight”