Musician John Schott is the mind behind an upcoming all-night rendition of "'Round Midnight." (Photo/Cookie Segelstein)
Musician John Schott is the mind behind an upcoming all-night rendition of "'Round Midnight." (Photo/Cookie Segelstein)

Theolonious Monk’s masterpiece becomes an all-night Shavuot musical meditation

Talmudic scholars have nothing on jazz musicians when it comes to disputing the fine points of a canonical text — well, tune. While pianist Thelonious Monk’s sublime ballad “’Round Midnight” has been recorded many hundreds of times, including more than a dozen by the composer himself, the exact contours of its form and harmonic structure have been debated, parsed, interrogated and contemplated since the birth of modern jazz.

First recorded in 1944 by Ellingtonian trumpeter Cootie Williams, the composition is indelibly linked with Miles Davis, whose breathtaking rendition at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival with an all-star combo including Monk revitalized the trumpeter’s career and led to a contract with Columbia Records. But coming off the stage, Davis groused to Newport impresario George Wein that “Monk plays the wrong changes” to his own tune.

Berkeley guitarist John Schott is well aware of “’Round Midnight’s” indeterminate status, which is one reason why he’s convened an extravagantly talented minyan of improvisers to explore the composition at an all-night Shavuot musical meditation starting June 4 and ending at sunrise June 5. An eight-hour multimedia event performed live in San Francisco at Light Rail Studios and streamed online, the concert is the centerpiece of Dawn, a reimagining of the holiday Shavuot launched in 2008 by the Jewish arts and culture nonprofit Reboot.

“There are a lot of difficult choices notating something like this,” Schott said over coffee at a West Berkeley café as he offered a rabbinic-like commentary on the composition’s tangled history. “It’s famously contentious as to what the actual text is and who composed what. I listened to every recording by Monk. New sources that have become available and new videos where you can see him playing it change the story. There can’t be a definitive version. Any chart of it ends up in some way reflecting its editor.”

In line with Schott’s nature not to rush things, the Shavuot performance embraces the Jewish tradition of burning the midnight oil to study sacred texts. Like scholars engaged in rigorous exegesis over a Torah portion, he and his cadre will dissect the tune so that each of its 48 measures guides a 10-minute improvised passage.

Thelonious Monk in New York in 1947. (Photo/William P. Gottlieb)
Thelonious Monk in New York in 1947. (Photo/William P. Gottlieb)

The sonic seekers joining Schott include a dazzling cohort gleaned from the Bay Area’s overlapping improvised and new music scenes, with vocalists Aurora Josephson and Cecilia Englehart, cellist Crystal Pascucci, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, trombonist Scott Larson, bassists Jason Hoopes and Safa Shokrai, Nikita Manin and Cory Wright on woodwinds, Suki O’Kane, Jason Levis and John Hanes on drums and percussion, and Kanoko Nishi-Smith on koto (a Japanese stringed instrument).

“Each person is there for a reason,” Schott said. “In each case, there was something in particular that suggested to me that they have something to contribute, that they would resonate with such an extraordinary task. In some cases because of a Jewish background. In some cases because of an interest in pan-cultural rituals and spirituality.”

The latest iteration of Dawn marks the return of Reboot’s in-person Shavuot celebration, a signature event for the nonprofit, which has expanded its programming since unveiling a new website last summer. Under the direction of San Anselmo-based music industry veteran David Katznelson, Reboot has presented Schott’s extended solo performance of “‘Round Midnight” several times in person and via livestream over the past two years. This is the first time Schott has worked with an expanded ensemble.

For Katznelson, the fact that Shavuot is not widely celebrated in the U.S. today makes it ripe for reinvention. “Since it was traditionally an all-night holiday, it had all these earmarks that new generations might want to attach themselves to,” he said. “We did these live, in-person events in San Francisco that culminated in an all-night Academy of Sciences event in 2010 with movies, bands, DJs, multimedia shows, impromptu plays and discussions. It was incredible, and something like 5,000 people came.”

Schott was part of the mix, and when the pandemic forced Reboot to move the Shavuot event online for two years, the guitarist took advantage of the virtual space. “He’d have these books to read and things on the wall,” Katznelson said. “He’s talking music theory and Monk and Torah and numerology. I thought last year’s was the best one he’d done. And then he came with a new idea, that we should have an orchestra doing it. I’m in!”

Schott and Katznelson have known each other since the mid-1990s, when Katznelson signed the vaunted Bay Area acid jazz combo T.J. Kirk to Warner Bros. The band went on to earn a Grammy Award nomination for their second album, 1996’s “If Four Was One.” Featuring a three-guitar frontline with Schott, Will Bernard and Charlie Hunter powered by drummer Scott Amendola, the quartet took its name from the composers who supplied the bulk of their turbo-charged repertoire. (They caged “T” from Thelonious Monk, swiped “J” from James Brown, and purloined “Kirk” from the visionary saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.)

Schott made a vivid first impression on Katznelson when he inquired whether the A&R rep was related to the great Polish Jewish poet Itzhak Katzenelson, who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and perished at Auschwitz. And yes, he was, though no one had ever asked him that question upon meeting him, Schott said, crediting knowledge of Katzenelson to his wife, Naomi Seidman, then a professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union and now the Chancellor Jackman Professor in the Arts at the University of Toronto.

Music and a passion for fin de siècle Viennese intellectual ferment served as primary vehicles for exploring and solidifying Schott’s Jewish identity. A Seattle native, he grew up in a highly creative musical environment with a secular Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. While the 1980s Puget Sound scene earned international attention for incubating the punk rock-inspired grunge movement, it also hosted a high concentration of volatile improvisers. By the time he finished high school, Schott was enmeshed with drummers Jim Black, Aaron Alexander and Mike Sarin, saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Brad Shepik, who all went on to become illustrious players in New York.

Schott graduated from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts with a degree in composition after studying with bass legend Gary Peacock and former Bay Area drummer Jerry Granelli. He was drawn to the Bay Area by the San Francisco Symphony’s extensive programming around the 80th birthday of composer Elliot Carter, as well as his desire to study with the Belgian pianist Jeanne Stark-Iochmans, who performed regularly across the Bay Area and taught for decades in Berkeley. He’s recorded a series of beautifully idiosyncratic albums, starting with his 1997 debut on Tzadik, “In These Great Times,” for John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series, a project featuring tenor John Horton Murray singing Schott’s 12-tone-inspired settings for texts by Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus and Jacob Glatshteyn.

While the ”’Round Midnight” project is entirely in keeping with Schott’s creative track record, he acknowledges the ballad’s well-trod path, channeling Yogi Berra to note that “’Round Midnight’ is so overplayed that nobody plays it anymore.” Questioned directly about why this tune and not another Monk classic, say “Ruby, My Dear” or “Crepuscule With Nellie,” he takes a long pause before answering.

“There are so many different reasons why for me,” he said, starting with a famous recording of Monk in the studio in 1957 playing “’Round Midnight” for close to 30 minutes (tracks included on the original CD reissue of “Thelonious Himself”). “Though he knows the piece better than anyone, he plays it over and over again. Working it and examining it as if under a microscope.”

He also recounted a brief conversation with koto player Miya Masaoka, who recorded a 1997 album “Monk’s Japanese Folk Song,” a project focusing on Monk compositions with drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman. Masaoka mentioned that in a rehearsal they played “’Round Midnight” for half an hour, “and it immediately fired this project in my mind. I thought, ‘It should have been an hour!’ Eight hours is the maximum any human should do something like this. I wanted to do the maximum.”

’Round Midnight Reconsidered

9 p.m. June 4 to 5:30 a.m. June 5 at Light Rail Studios, 672 Toland Place, S.F. $36. Proof of vaccination required. Livestream also available. J. is the official media sponsor.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.