8-hour all-night reimagining of Monk’s masterpiece marks Jewish day of joy
There’s a Talmudic teaching that wasting a salesman’s time by asking questions about something with no intention to buy is equivalent to the sin of stealing.
So when Thelonious Monk’s gorgeous house in South Orange, NJ, came on the market, right down the street from me on Redmond Road, the appointment I immediately booked to see it wasn’t just a gag. I was actually considering buying it, hoping that the spirit of one of America’s most important composers and musicians would haunt my family and me. And instead of racing through—seen one bathroom and bedroom, seen em all, says Larry David—I soaked it in. Our ordinarily very patient realtor (plug: The Robert Northfield Team at Keller Willaims) told me I was pushing it by reading every single news clipping on the wall, staring at every framed photo on the piano.
A lot of that was because of one beautiful ballad: “Round Midnight.”
I’m an 80s kid so I’m not ashamed to say that my first deep exposure to a song that’s one of the most recorded in history was via the Herbie Hancock soundtrack to the movie Round Midnight. I later came upon the version Miles Davis recorded for his album Round About Midnight and even later than that came to understand that Miles’ version built on Dizzy Gillespie’s version. Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk had famously performed the song together at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, which arguably vaulted Davis into the pantheon of jazz greats.
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The Jewish holiday of Shavuos is a harvest festival that occurs seven weeks after Passover. (“Shavuos” simply means “weeks.”) It marks the day the Jewish people were given the torah and observant Jews commemorate that miracle by staying up all night to celebrate and study the holy texts.
On June 4, San Francisco-based guitarist and composer John Schott will convene an all-star cast of musicians to consider and reconsider Round Midnight all night long, approaching that sacred bit of American genius the way religious Jews discuss, interpret, and argue over the ancient wisdom in the holy books.
Starting at 9:30 pm and rocking til 5:30 am, Schott will lead an all-star orchestra at San Francisco’s Light Rail Studio in an event that will be livestreamed to Jews—and jazz fans—all over the world. It’s all part of an event called DAWN, which the non-profit Jewish culture group Reboot is staging as “a bold reimagining of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.”
Schott’s musical journey intertwined with his religious journey. “I grew up with virtually no Jewish identity or observance,” Schott told Rock and Roll Globe. “But as I passed out of my teens, I began moving toward ‘Being More Jewish’ at the same time as I committed my life to music. This exploration of Jewishness was largely self-directed, but at age 26 I married one of the foremost Jewish scholars of our time (not exaggerating), Naomi Seidman. Her knowledge and insights have been tremendously influential to me. Through her I’ve become friends with some very deep Jewish thinkers living in Berkeley: Dina Aranoff, Robert Alter, Chana Kronfeld and David Biale. I attend synagogue semi-regularly, especially when they hire me to play guitar. I am deeply invested in Jewish thought, history, and liturgy, and I’ve tried to find places where I can bring that into my musical creations.”
Schott was a member of Charlie Hunter’s funk-jazz side group TJ Kirk, who built a reputation in the Bay Area and beyond for its innovative updates of jazz standards. Schott currently performs in Damn Skippy, which is an offspring of TJ Kirk. So this Shavuot project continues that legacy of injecting new life into old traditions. And to do so, Schott has assembled a murderer’s row of great players to bring it to life, including vocalists Aurora Josephson and Cecilia Englehart, Nikita Manin and Cory Wright on woodwinds, Crystal Pascucci on strings, trombonist Scott Larson, bassists Lisa Mezzacappa and Safa Shokrai, and at least three drummers, Suki O’Kane, Jason Levis and John Hanes.
According to Reboot, Schott has taken an analytical approach to mapping the jazz chestnut onto an even older Jewish tradition:
“The ensemble of more than a dozen musicians will use Jewish approaches to textual commentary as a framing principle for their improvisations. Each of the 48 measures of ‘Round Midnight,’ which typically take 90 seconds to perform, will be stretched to 10 minutes length, resulting in a complete performance lasting eight hours. Each note, group of notes, and rest will be treated as an object for contemplation and commentary. This extended experience is intended to transform the music into a powerful medium for spiritual realization.”
Meanwhile, the score of the song, as well as related texts and photos will be projected on the walls during the performance “to add context and depth.”
This ambitious Shavuos project is only the latest in a series of creative takes on this joyous holiday by Reboot, a group that “reimagines and reinforces Jewish thought and traditions.” In 2008, they celebrated the holiday with a festival of experiential arts that opened San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Two years later, they took over the California Academy of Sciences for an all-night party of study and celebration. More recently, the pandemic limited them to online marathons of Jewish cultural programming. They gave it their best shot, but compared to Monk all night … let’s just say:
הִנֵּה מַה טוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אָחִים גַּם יַחַד
Behold how good and how pleasing / for brothers to sit together in unity.
VIDEO: James Wilson “Hineh Ma Tov”
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