For a city with a not exactly pretty-sounding name, Hackensack has made it into a lot of musical compositions. There’s Fountains of Wayne’s 2003 ballad, “Hackensack.” And Billy Joel’s 1977 hit, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” boasts the famous line, “Who needs a house out in Hackensack?”
And then there’s Thelonious Monk’s 1954 instrumental “Hackensack,” named for the city where it was recorded.
At the time, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder was running a leading jazz studio out of his parents’ Hackensack home; in 1959, he moved it to Englewood Cliffs, and had even more success. At the time of Monk’s 1954 session, Miles Davis, James Moody, Art Farmer and Tal Farlow had already recorded there; in the years to come, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell and countless other jazz luminaries recorded in Van Gelder’s studios. Rollins made his classic Saxophone Colossus in the Hackensack studio; Coltrane did A Love Supreme at Van Gelder Studio after the move to Englewood Cliffs.
Pianist Monk recorded “Hackensack” and three other tracks at Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio for his 1954 album Monk, with trumpeter Ray Copeland, saxophonist Frank Foster, bassist Curly Russell and drummer Art Blakey. On the 1965 version below, he is backed by saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley.
Singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry summed up the appeal of Monk’s rough-edged, exploratory playing on “Hackensack” this way, on his web site, joehenrylovesyoumadly.com: “I am reminded of the quote from Picasso where he said, ‘When I was 22 I could paint like Rembrandt, but it took my whole life to learn to paint like a child.’ To me, ‘Hackensack’ is the sound of a man completely in control of his powers, but down on his knees like a kid, painting with his fingers.”
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.