The Curious Story of “Kojo no Tsuki” -or- Thelonious Monk & “Japanese Folk Song”

©Laurence Svirchev

We were sitting at the dinner table when the cell phone alert started playing “Japanese Folk Song” by Thelonious Sphere Monk. ChengYing laughed and said, “Why do you have that Japanese movie music on your mobile phone”? I could only answer, “Huh?  Monk doing movie music? It’s just a beautiful, rare composition he picked up during a tour in Japan.”

I was right about the beautiful part, but wrong about the rare.

She laughed and said, “Every Chinese of my generation knows that melody. It was in so many Chinese black and white films. When it was played, we knew that something Japanese was in the film. It could be something beautiful or even Japanese soldiers about to make a sneaky night-time attack on our soldiers. The sound track created this tension, the cadence represented their foot-steps in the dark, or maybe there was some traitor skulking through the night to report to his masters. After hearing it so many times in different movies, it became a stereotype.”

It’s hard not to be enchanted by the simple melody and the wonderful swing of Monk on “Japanese Folk Song.”  Monk had recorded it in 1966 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City and issued in 1967 on Straight No Chaser”. When I first heard it in the 1970s on the Columbia Records LP, the only information I had available was Orrin Keepnew’s Liner notes: “Japanese Folk Song…may be inspired by a recent tour of Japan, or it may be a native folk tune. But no one’s going to discover which by any such simple means as directly asking Thelonious!” With the CD issue of “Straight No Chaser” the liner notes were reprinted and the playback time remained the same. There was no hint that the  studio recorded time had been truncated to squeeze it onto the 33 rpm LP.

In 1996 Straight No Chaser was re-issued and remastered by Orrin Keepnews with crystal clear sound. The original recording length of 16:41 was restored. The composition’s Japanese name “Kojo No Tsuki” (The Moon Over the Desolate Castle) was credited to R. Taki. The beauteous aspects of Japan were in the music, but it seemed impossible to associate the easy-going buoyancy of this distinctly un-Monkish composition theme with anything so dastardly as Japan’s military activities in China in the 1930’s and 1940‘s. Cheng Ying’s comments about Chinese film aroused my curiosity.

I started looking on the internet and rummaging through reference books to find any research or commentary about the composition. Whitney Balliett’s Complete Works don’t mention Monk playing the tune. Monk biographers Fitterling, deWilde, and Gourse did not provide any useful references, but Robin D.G. Kelly’s diligent, accurate, and earthy biography “Thelonious Monk, the Life and Times of an American Original” (Free Press, 2009) provided insight into Monk’s relation to the composition. The internet proved most helpful (but note that I have not been able to independently validated all of the information below except for Kelley’s scholarly writing).

Rentarō Taki composed “The Moon over the Desolate Castle” in 1901 and died two years later of tuberculosis. Taki wrote it not as a performance piece, but as a school-book lesson in ‘Songs for High School Students’.  The date  of 1901 makes “Japanese Folk Song” the oldest composition that Monk recorded, with the exception of songs from the 1800s English and American hymnal tradition like “Abide with Me” and “This Is My Story, This Is My Song”.

Lyrics were added later by Bansu Doï (1871-1952):

“A banquet was held in the splendid castle in the season of the cherry blossom.

Where is the light now, that shadowed the glasses and flew through the old pines?

The encampment was covered with frost in the autumn.

Where is the light now, that shone on the swords like plants, that were as numerous as the cackling wild

geese that flew ?

Now there is the moon over the desolate castle.

Whom is it shining for without change?

Only tendrils remain on the walls.

Only the storm sings between branches of the pines.

The shadow of the sky doesn’t change.

But the moon is reflecting it as before, changing for better to worse?

Ah! The moon over the desolate castle!”

Doï’s lyrics are filled with nostalgia and fleeting images. The figurative language is also based on incidents in Japanese history when specific castles were rendered derelict by intense internal wars during the 1860’s. One of these castles was the Aoba Castle in Sendai. In particular, Doï was inspired by a poem by Yaeko Yamamoto, a female fighter, rifle markswoman, and gunnery instructor. Her poem was scratched with an arrow on the wall of a castle about to fall during a siege. The references to encampments, swords, and the desolate castle in Doï’s lyrics are distinctly at odds with the cherry blossoms, and the once splendid castle. The lyrics subtly balance the violence of war, the pleasure of eating under cherry blossoms, and fond memories, each of which is exposed under the cold light of the moon. Did Taki the musician intend the beautiful melody to have such lyrics? The composer and the lyricist seem to have met only once so as Fats Waller  sang, “One never knows, do one?”

With its first recording in 1925, “The Moon over the Desolate Castle” became a kind of enduring sentimental standard known to all Japanese, even today. The lyrics must have had a powerful influence among Japanese during WWII, for according to a footnote in Robin D.G. Kelly’s book, “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle” was “so identified with Japanese nationalism that the Allied forces banned it during the occupation of Japan in late 1945.” The war-shattered remnants of the Aoba Castle in Sendai had been destroyed once again on July 9, 1945 when 567 US B-29s paraded over the prefecture dropping incendiary and high explosives. The incendiary bombing campaign had begun on the night of March 9-10, 1945 when a fleet of 334 B-29s flying in streams 400-miles long for nearly three hours leaving Tokyo incinerated (http://www.atomicbombmuseum.org/2_manhattan.shtml).

In 1950, “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle” was a featured part of a movie called Desertion at Dawn. American censors approved the final script. The original-source novel was written by Taijiro Tamura. Future cinematographers Senkichi Taniguchi and Akira Kurosawa were among the script-writers. In the story-line, a Japanese soldier is captured in occupied China by Chinese forces. He escapes but due to the Japanese military code is treated as an outcast for not dying in combat. Falling for a prostitute, he decides to desert and flee with her. The plot sounds rather banal, but Tamura had a major career examining Japanese morality induced by social changes from WWII.

The scene with “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle” is extraordinary. A long shot zooms into the singer over the heads of an audience, a troop of Japanese soldiers and officers in a traditional Chinese courtyard. The coloratura soprano of the singer is done in the slow, formal, and meticulously-paced fashion in which the song was composed, accompanied by accordion only. Her voice carries extreme emotion, a melancholy beyond belief. What enhances the emotion is the faces of the uniformed solders as the camera pans across the assembly. One wears a beatific smile on his face, as if overwhelmed by the beauty of the singer, another sways in time with the music. But most are sunk in sadness, battle-fatigue etched on their faces, perhaps thinking of home and loved ones, perhaps thinking of the killing they had done as invaders, perhaps wondering if they would survive the next battle, doubting if they would ever get home. The officers are rigid-faced. One man, it seems, is he that she is singing to. He looks, in contrast to his mates, resolute and self-confident, as if nothing else in the world exists except the bond between himself and the singer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxDdLOMwjc8).

The singer went by three names. She was born in Manchuria of Japanese parents as Yoshiko Ōtaka. Her Mandarin name was Li Xianglan, and during a post-war acting career in the USA, she was known as Shirley Yamaguchi. But however she was called, she was one of the “Seven Great Singing Stars” of Shanghai in the 30’s. Ōtaka’s beauty, singing acting talent and bilingualism made her an Asian super-star. She paid a huge price for acting in Japanese-Chinese productions during the war years. With the end of the war in China, she was arrested by the Chinese government for treason: collaboration with the Japanese. She escaped conviction and execution because she was not a Chinese national. In 1946, she settled in Japan to continue her long career in film and song, collaborating with Kurosawa and many others who reached peaks of creativity. She later became a television reporter, a long-standing member of the Japanese Diet, and Vice-President of the Asian Women’s Fund.

If one does a simple internet search of “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle”, endless renditions can be heard. It seems clear that “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle” has touched, and deeply so, the lives of many in Asia. Would all that have come about had the melody not been put to words? That is an unanswerable question; the saga began with the genius melody of Rentarō Taki and it was the melody that spawned the rest. Or was it that the tradition of Japanese music and poetry was made palpable by the effect of wars and and the ever-inspiring moon?

But how did Monk come to put his searing brand on it? According to Robin D.G. Kelly, Monk was probably introduced to the music in 1966 by Ms. Reiko Hoshino, owner of a jazz club in Kyoto. Monk’s treatment of the composition can be heard only twice, one of them a bootleg audio recording from the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. Beyond Kelley’s biography, the bootleg, and the recording made by Columbia, the trail of documentation seems to run out.

The Columbia session was a quartet, Monk, Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Larry Galloway (bass), and Ben Riley (drums). The tempo is moderately faster than any of the Japanese classical versions I’ve heard. Stripped bare, the rendition is a run-through of the melody first by Monk with the second run by Rouse accompanied by Monk cycling through variations. This is followed by a Rouse improvisation, a Rouse solo sans Monk, a Monk solo with rhythm section, a rarity (solos by Gales and Riley), reprise and coda by the band.

I find a couple of remarkable things about the rendition. Firstly, Thelonious Monk plays “Kojo no Tsuki” like no other musician. His version adheres to the melody but he also made it swing as as a jazz improvisation, changing certain aspects of the form while remaining faithful to the emotion. At every point of the recording, straight soloing or embellishing behind Rouse, he never lets go of the fundamental melody. He plasticizes it, plays it straight, lets silence fall in between the notes, and rhythmically reinvents it. He plays variations as if he could go on forever, and from a listeners’ point of view it never becomes repetitious or without surprise. He must have given it considerable practice and contemplation to play it so thoroughly and with such intimate connection. Alternatively stated, Monk seems in love with “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle”.

Secondly, Rouse. I had always felt Rouse to be a tenor player who could play Monk’s music in competent fashion, perhaps a guy who held the gig for a long time because he could tolerate Monk’s personal eccentricities while being at one with Monk’s extraordinary musicianship. In the jazz literature, Rouse is frequently characterized as monotonic in his approach to Monk’s music, a player who lacked imagination and vibrance. Rouse does tend to play in the same register; daring flights of fancy (showmanship) were not his stock in trade. On videos of Rouse, one sees a guy who seems to be a man with economical body motion, a bit bored of the proceedings. The eyes of a listener, however, are not the most trustworthy instrument for measuring the success of music: one should never be fooled by stolid expression.

On “Kojo no Tsuki” Rouse barely touches the simple melody with the exceptions of the head and the coda. Instead, he dances around and through it, occasionally throws a foot into its powerful gravitational field, but never steps long enough to get pulled out of his abstraction. Throughout, Rouse plays in counterpoint with Monk’s constant variations, even when Monk drops out at around four and a half minutes leaving Rouse to soldier alone with the rhythm section. Rouse displays a fertile imagination and a masterful understanding of the intricacies of the composition.

If there is a weakness in the recording, it is not the musicians’ fault. Stereo was just coming into its own as a recording medium and there is artificial separation of the musicians in the mix. When Monk is playing, the mix is acceptable, but when he drops out, there is no real center. Riley is way out on the left channel, Gales is way out on the right channel, and Rouse is center-right. The lack of a tight, binaural set-up make for poor psycho-acoustics, especially when Rouse solos. Riley and Gales are made to sound as if they were in different rooms, not as part of  an ensemble. Should Columbia ever decide to reissue again, a tightened mix would be preferable.

One does not have to know the history of this song to feel primal and bewitching melancholy. “Kojo no Tsuki” is identified with tragic events but has also been the source of great inspiration. It has been played in multiple contexts, including as a cell-phone alert (how banal!) and in ironic inverse on its history, a parody of Japanese militarism in Chinese films (sadly I could not find any Chinese cinema with the music in it). It all comes down to the impact of the music, Monk’s  version being probably the most iconoclastic. Monk was an informed and wise man, and whether he knew some of the history of the “The Moon Over the Desolate Castle” is immaterial. The song has become a kind of rock of ages, a composition that lives well beyond the life span of anyone born in the year of its composition. Monk played it for what it was worth, and for the same reasons, multiple musicians have recorded it. He  played it with the same kind knowledgeable abandon as he saw might have seen in a “Carolina Moon.”

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