In 1968, when great rock music impresario Bill Graham established the legendary Fillmore East in an abandoned movie theater in New York for world-famous bands such as The Doors, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, a Jewish high school student named Danny Scher from Palo Alto, California, launched his own career as a concert promoter — only he was into jazz music.
Later, their careers would intersect when Scher worked for Holocaust survivor Graham for over two decades. But in October 1968, the persuasive 16-year-old Scher was busy convincing the great American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk to play for an audience in his Palo Alto High School auditorium.
Unusual for the time, the audience was integrated. White residents from Palo Alto and Stanford University students were there, along with residents from neighboring all-Black East Palo Alto. The young Scher had managed to bring people from both sides of the Bayshore Freeway together — if only for one afternoon — in a politically tumultuous and racially charged year.
A recording of that exceptional October 27, 1968, performance survives, and will be released for the first time on July 31 on the well-known jazz label Impulse! Records. The album, titled, “Palo Alto,” features six numbers played by Monk and his quartet — Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Larry Gales (bass), and Ben Riley (drums).
Scher’s excitement about the album’s release 52 years after it was recorded by a member of the school’s custodial staff was palpable in a recent video interview with The Times of Israel from his home near Berkeley.
“A school janitor asked me if he could record it and I gave him a blank quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape. I didn’t even realize at the time that I wasn’t supposed to record the concert. Afterwards he gave the tape back to me and I just put it away in a closet in my parents’ house,” said Scher, who is now 68.
The tape sat there for decades until 20 years ago Scher decided to take it to Fantasy Records to ask an engineer if and how the tape could be protected. Scher came away with a digital version of the recording, as well as a CD.
“I thought it was just something cute to have. I didn’t have the rights to it,” Scher said.
But five years later, he decided to contact Monk’s son T.S. Monk, who leads his father’s Rhythm-A-Ning Entertainment estate.
“As soon as T.S. Monk listened to the recording, he knew right away that his father was feeling really good that day and wasn’t just going through the motions,” Scher said.
Five years later, the two men came to an agreement, and on October 10, 2017 — what would have been Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday — they signed a deal.
Today Palo Alto is known for being the capital of Silicon Valley and home to extremely wealthy individuals who have made fortunes in hi-tech. The median home price in the city is currently over $3 million.
Scher, however, remembers growing up in what was then a middle-class community. He was the third of six sons in a family with parents who had moved west from the Lower East Side of New York.
“My father dropped out of college to join the Navy. We moved around a lot, to Hawaii and within California, with my parents having a child in each place my father was stationed. Once we settled in Palo Alto, my father returned to school at Stanford and then went to night law school in San Francisco,” Scher said.
“Early Jews” in Palo Alto, his parents helped found the community’s Conservative synagogue Kol Emeth. Unlike the racial and ethnic diversity of contemporary Palo Alto, the city was “lily white” when Scher was a child and teenager.
“There weren’t many Black or Asian kids in school with us at the time. There were only five African-American students in my graduating class,” he recalled.
“However, I never perceived any racism, and I didn’t experience any anti-Semitism,” he said.
Another Jewish student at Palo Alto High School at the time named Keith Raffel had similar recollections of the era, which predated the voluntary transfer program (essentially integration by busing) known as the Tinsley Program that resulted from a 1985 lawsuit.
“Palo Alto was definitely not as diverse then. There was an all-Black high school in Palo Alto, and there was a ‘sneak in program’ by which some students from East Palo Alto got into Palo Alto schools,” said Raffel, who was editor of his high school’s Campanile newspaper, and now writes and teaches following a successful career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
Raffel was referring to a “sneak out” program organized by activist Gertrude Wilks, other local mothers, and white friends from Palo Alto to get 100 East Palo Alto children into the better resourced schools on the other side of the freeway. By living with the white families, the Black students would be able to legally register for Palo Alto schools.
While the teenaged Raffel said he went up to San Francisco (without telling his parents) to see Jefferson Airplane and The Doors play, Scher remained a steadfast jazz fan. He also played percussion in the school jazz band and had his own dixieland band.
“I was weird in liking jazz, but I didn’t know it. I hoped to attract other kids my age to the genre. I was either idealistic, or more likely in denial,” Scher joked.
His enthusiasm for jazz and desperation to sell tickets to the Monk concert took him to East Palo Alto. It was a place where “if you lived in Palo Alto you didn’t hang out — except for the burger joints in this one small part of East Palo Alto called Whiskey Gulch.”
Scher put posters up all over, but the $2 tickets ($1.50 for students) weren’t selling. People didn’t seem to know who Monk was. To ensure that he would have enough to pay the artist’s $500 fee, Scher sold program ads to local vendors. He enlisted his older brother Les to pick Monk and his band up from San Francisco in the family van to eliminate transportation costs.
In East Palo Alto, Scher ignored police officers who would stop him and ask what he was doing there. He carried on putting up posters and talking up the concert to locals. Scher hustled, and at the last minute, the auditorium was packed.
Scher said his favorites among all jazz musicians are Duke Ellington and Monk.
“The two of them stood out to me. They were different. They weren’t imitators,” Scher said.
“Monk in particular was never inaccessible or avant garde. He wasn’t as prolific as Ellington or a big record seller, but each of his compositions was a masterpiece,” he added.
More than 50 years later, Raffel still remembers that Scher, who was a year behind him at school, brought artists like Jon Hendricks and Vince Guaraldi (composer of the music for the animated television adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip) to perform.
Scher was taken aback by the question of how he had the chutzpah — in a good way — to approach all these performers while still a teenager.
“I don’t see myself as having chutzpah. I’m just not afraid to pick up the phone and call people. It’s not something people do today,” he said.