Interview: Trumpeter and bandleader Charles Tolliver

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A few days before his Duke Performances- and Center for Documentary Studies-sponsored concert at New York's Town Hall Thursday night, Charles Tolliver spoke with me about how the show had come about, the challenge of transcribing the scores and his memories of Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert--er, well, I'll let him tell it.

What was your introduction to Thelonious Monk? How did you discover him?

As a teenager, all of us kids who were into jazz, we were into all the guys including Thelonious Monk. He was one of our major listening guys.

You were at the Town Hall show in 1959. How old were you?

I guess I would have been not quite 17.

What was the vibe, and what do you remember about it?

To tell you the truth, I would not remember. I actually would not remember. We started trying to get into a lot of places. At a concert hall, you could get into that; the clubs were a little different because of the cabaret rules and the drinking rules. There actually was another place just around the corner where concerts were put on as well—the Fraternal Clubhouse. But both those places, as I understand, were created as houses where people could protest thing. I think Town Hall was created for that reason, not for concerts.

This was Monk’s first foray into big band material. As someone who started with small groups but also works a lot with big bands, can you associate with Monk on the advantages and disadvantages of working with a large group?

I’m a small group guy, but I’ve done quite a bit of big band work over the years. I grew up as a small group guy and still am. As you go through the years and learn techniques with writing for larger forms. I was asked to recreate the scores. It would have been much easier if the Hall Overton scores had been in a safe place. One could just get permission to put on the scores and just put them on. To do this sort of thing, if you want to actually have a concert where you have the music that was played that night presented again for posterity, you would have to recreate the scores. It’s transcribing a recording from those days when the recording techniques were at best minimal--although they did catch the overall sound, they didn’t get into miking the instruments individually, so making a really dead on score took a long time.

Yeah, I was curious how long such a project would take.

It took several months. When you have to glean out certain things you have to put it down for a while and come back. I used LPs instead of CDs. It meant I also had to have very good speakers, a good turntable and a lot of needles—which is not an easy thing to find these days. You painstakingly only put down exactly what you hear and not what you think you hear. You have to know the sound of each instrument like you Social Security number. It means you do not put down what you think you hear. The newly found rehearsal tapes [from the Jazz Loft Project] was inviting. However, I refused to do that because I wanted to have the actual visceral reading they had, mistakes and all, and then to decide, should I put down those mistakes or make those dynamic markings. When you get into intended, you are then in dangerous ground. If it’s not in the grooves, you don’t put it down. I decided that I didn’t want any assistance from rehearsal tapes.

Now, you didn’t play any horn when you performed these charts at Duke, right?

It is probably one of the reasons why—well, although the overall performance from the night in 1959 was great, there were some miscues. And the reason why is that no one was conducting it. If you’re going to recreate it, then someone has to be up there conducting the men.

What’s the significance of this project?

I mean, I was asked to do it, so for this was something that I would have tackled just because I was asked to do it. From a historical point of view, this was a tremendous idea from the Duke people. No one was thinking about it, or if they were, they were thinking it was too hard. [The Duke folks] already had in mind that they were going to beat everybody to the punch. It’s a grand and important night—important that what Monk did is celebrated. I think it’s a grand idea. The Duke folks are absolutely to be commended.


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