The Black Jazz Icon and the White Jewish Teenager

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 30, 2020 / 12 Cheshvan 5781



Post Election Clergy Support

Summary: This week, I wanted to share a moving story that only came to light over the summer. Before that, the history was lost. But this is an inspiring story of a Jewish teenager who, like Abraham and Sarah in this week’s parsha, followed his destiny. I hope you enjoy and that it provides you with some encouragement.


The Black Jazz Icon and the White Jewish Teenager

This is the story of Thelonious Monk and Danny Scher. It’s a tale about race relations, economics, violence on the streets, hope and despair. The possibility and limitations of activism. Even unanticipated unity. That’s a lot, because this story starts with the dream of a 16 year old boy to organize a concert at his high school in 1968.

It’s also one of the reasons that history matters. Particularly in periods of turmoil, history lets us know we are not the first to be challenged by difficult times. History can also help us see our own age more clearly, to understand that what seems unprecedented isn’t. It can frame the ideas being espoused as solutions by allowing us to see how well the exact same notions worked previously. This also helps us judge whether there is any genuine creativity or innovation in proposed solutions. History also matters because it lets us recover lost stories or heroism, courage and moral imagination. We are all served by the inspiration these provide.

The story of Danny Scher does just that. His is a real Lekh Lekha moment—of accepting the journey that has been destined for you, just as Abraham did, and then pursuing it somewhat single-mindedly. It happened like this. Danny was a ten year old drummer in his elementary school band. That’s when he fell in love with music, and particularly Jazz. That’s the land he was being sent to.

Danny loved playing music. He also loved teaching about and sharing it with others. This red-haired kid would spin vinyl every Wednesday during his lunch hour for anyone who wanted to listen in. By the time he was 16, he knew that he wanted to promote live music events. He had already forged relationships with radio djsc jockeys and Jazz writers. From these individuals, he received the phone numbers of contemporary musicians and their agents. He would eventually become an important west coast figure in live music events. That, of course, was still unknown to him. It still remained a dream, a vision to the teenager.

Danny was the chair of his Palo Alto High School’s International Club. This group raised money for the Peace Corps and to help fund construction projects in Peru and Kenya. So some of that Jewish tikkun olam spirit clearly touched him early on. And like anyone who has a Lekh Lekha mission, he knew enough to combine his passions.

Thus it was that he decided he would invite one of the greatest Jazz musicians of all time to perform at his high school, and use any profits to advance the causes espoused by the International Club. How he made it happen is a fascinating tale all its own and if you are interested, please seek out the full story. It’s the context of this historical event that is important to focus on here, as it has some resonance to our contemporary scene.

Remember, this was 1968. MLK Jr. and JFK had both already been assassinated. Civil unrest had spilled out on to the streets. Vietnam protests were in full swing, and in Chicago, the brutal police beatings of some of those protesters captured the national attention. Racial unrest spilled out into over 120 American cities as frustrated Black youth took to throwing stones, and as a car in Palo Alto was overturned by the angry crowds.

Then as now, there was a large economic divide between well-off Palo Alto, and the poorer community of color in East Palo Alto, which were separated by the Bayshore Freeway. None of this deterred Danny, who hung up posters on telephone poles all over town. The Black residents scoffed at him, asking “so Thelonious Monk is going to play in lily-white Palo Alto? We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Scher cleverly got a couple of popular local bands on board as openers to generate attendance. People were so suspicious of each other, however, that few tickets had sold—even in the hours leading up to the concert. Nonetheless, a large Black crowd from across town waited in the school parking lot just on the off chance. When Danny’s older brother drove up with Monk and musicians Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales and Ben Riley in tow, suddenly the show sold out. The people in the auditorium that day were more diverse and representative of the larger community than had ever occurred in Palo Alto.

That day was October 27th, 1968—the same day that the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting would occur 50 years later in Pittsburgh. Hatred and unity, hope and despair, tied together by a date on the calendar.

Robin D.G. Kelley is a scholar of Thelonious Monk and author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. About this concert Kelley wrote, “Neither Theolonious Monk nor Danny Scher fully grasped what this concert meant for race relations in the area. For on this one beautiful Sunday afternoon, blacks and whites, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, gathered together to listen to a Jazz legend…The problems facing East Palo Alto did not go away, however. Although this magical afternoon concert demonstrated the power of music to bring people together…the inequalities persist.”

There’s much we can learn from this 50 year old concert. If you are a teenager, I hope you will be encouraged. A sixteen year old did something remarkable, important, healing. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too young to dream big. At the same time, we all need to understand that important change rarely happens in a given moment. It’s the way that lots of small moments, happening over decades, pile up that really shift a society. We need decisive action—and we also need patience. Those two qualities don’t coexist easily in most people.

Yet that is the story of Abraham’s Lekh Lekha moment. God makes a promise. A nation would be born, dedicated to ethics, critical thinking, tied to a small piece of semi-arid land. Abraham for his part, had a destiny. He dreamed big. He acted forcefully. And he would not see the promise fulfilled. Not in his life. Not in the life of his children. Not even his grandchildren. Yet here we all are here because Sarah and Abraham heard a call and grabbed hold of their destiny. When you have that clarity, the setbacks don’t really matter. They can’t extinguish your vision. Patience and hope. A black Jazz icon and a red-haired Jewish kid.

The music of courage can sustain us through anything history throws at us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Who was the most impressive student you knew in high school? What was it about the person that made such an impression on you?
  2. Do you know what happened to the student? Did they hold on to their special characteristics as they aged?
  3. What were your biggest dreams and desires when you were 16? How many of them do you still have? Which ones faded away? Why?

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