"Americans have stood in awe of Europeans too long," says Reppard Stone, professor of jazz studies at Howard University. "The great composers are here now, the great performances are done here now." In confirmation of this claim, the Howard University College of Fine Arts and Department of Music will present "The Music of Thelonious Sphere Monk" tonight in Cramton Auditorium. The concert, the proceeds from which will help support the university's Jazz Oral History Project, will include examples of the late pianist-composer's writing for both small group and big band.
The Howard University Jazz Repertory Ensemble, a 21-member unit of professionals from the area and from New York, will perform selections from Monk's 1959 Town Hall Concert and a 1968 studio session with arranger Oliver Nelson. Stone has even orchestrated a piano solo, "Ask Me Now," for the ensemble. Small band pieces will be rendered by Sphere, a two-year-old New York-based quartet that specializes in Monk's music. Two of Sphere's members, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley, enjoyed long tenures with Monk. (Sphere, which also includes pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Buster Williams, will be at the One Step Down on Friday and Saturday.)
The Howard University Jazz Repertory Ensemble was first convened in 1982 for a stunning program devoted to the music of the 1940s Billy Eckstine Band. Among the current personnel are pianist John Malachi, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Keter Betts, vibraphonist Jimmy Wells, trumpeters Wallace Roney and Jim Howard, saxophonists Paul Carr, Buck Hill and Charlie Young, and trombonists Doug Purviance and Chuck Royal.
"We're talking about a major American composer," says Arthur Dawkins, coordinator of Jazz Studies at Howard, "and we consider this Monk project comparable to, say, a Handel festival. Most colleges have some type of jazz band, and they'll teach a jazz history class or jazz appreciation course, but to expend the kind of energy that we are doing in terms of research, reconstructing old and forgotten pieces of music -- we can't think of any other universities that are doing this kind of thing."
Stone observes that although "the jazz education phenomenon is really mind-boggling . . . too many institutions are not making the difference between that which is commercial music and that which is appropriately jazz studies."
Howard, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in jazz studies, not only equips its students with marketable skills in both performance and composition, explains Stone, but puts considerable emphasis on "the scholarly aspects and the serious nature of the music" as well. "We want them to have contact with the great masters," he says.
Indeed, Howard has integrated its efforts with performance and curricula to a degree that marks its program as unique. "We try to give our students a broad-based training in the real making of jazz music," Stone says. "They take improvisation, they play in ensembles and small groups. We try to let them have as much contact with the professionals as possible." The preparation for the Monk concert, he adds, "gives students a chance to watch professionals at work in terms of assembling as an orchestra, rehearsing and putting a piece of music together."
But the concert is just one manifestation of a Monk research project out of which will come scholarly publications by Stone, Dawkins and others. And the investigation of Monk's music is only part of a still larger effort that includes a National Endowment for the Arts-funded oral history project that is documenting on audio tape and videotape the lives of the still-living great be-bop musicians. Thus is Howard University beginning to address itself in a substantial way to the study of a body of music that many now believe is truly the classic art form of American culture.
"Americans vacationing abroad will see a string of jazz festivals all summer long, and that's when they discover this music," says Stone. "But they didn't have to go over there to hear it -- it's right around the corner."