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Duke Ellington had been jazz royalty for decades before the '60s. Although his perceived relevance had seen ups and downs, a 1956 Newport Jazz Festival appearance produced his best-selling record and firmly established his preeminence. He wasn't trying to ride anyone's coattails when, within two months in 1962, he had three separate historic recording sessions with new collaborators; one was with Coleman Hawkins, another with John Coltrane, and in the middle was a trio date with bop trailblazers Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

Money Jungle (Blue Note) was the result of that trio session. Although hard bop was as far away from Ellington's Big Band legacy as a shot of whiskey is from a mimosa, the record proves that each side understood, and had a great affinity for, the other's music. The hectic title tune (and isn't it one of the all-time great titles?) shows Duke improvising gracefully but purposefully with his rhythm section in the seeming throes of a we're-playing-with-a-legend adrenaline rush. On the very next track though, the spooky and spare "Fleurette Africaine," Mingus' repeated bass flourishes provide an understated foundation for a musing piano line that might have been slightly too wispy with Ellington on his own. Blue Note's new reissue has twice as many tracks as the original, which still isn't enough time to spend with this once-in-a-lifetime combo.

When Thelonious Monk signed with Columbia Records in 1962, he had already written the songs that made him immortal. The cognoscenti knew him well (even if they disagreed about his merits), but the public at large — the folks who were buying Columbia's Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck records by the truckload — didn't. His major-label debut, Monk's Dream (Columbia Legacy, who this month also restore Monk's At Newport to the form it should have had all along) is composed of songs he had cut before (three of them were first recorded almost exactly a decade prior), which would seem like a perfect opportunity for a career-minded musician to sand down the rough edges of his music to make it presentable for the masses.

But Monk's hard, angular music was as polished as it was going to get; his jewels were never going to sound like velvet brandy snifters, not with him at the keyboard. He just kept doing what he did, and the public finally caught up to him. Here, with a quartet featuring the highly sympathetic Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, he gave a compelling display of Monk-ism — listen to the singularly skewed "Just A Gigolo" or the eccentric jerking rhythms of "Bye-Ya" — and two years later his face was on the cover of Time magazine.

Unlike those two pianists, Professor Longhair had a less stable career arc. Despite having inaugurated a whole era of New Orleans R&B with his unique rumba-meets-boogie-woogie style (his weird keyboard technique supposedly a result of having learned to play on a piano with very few working keys), Fess suffered long bouts of obscurity — some thanks to changes in musical fashion, some reportedly caused by run-ins with the law.

Though you wouldn't know it from the incomplete liner notes, the newly re-released Rum and Coke and Big Chief (Tomato) were evidently both recorded in 1978, during his last long stretch of popularity, at the club named after his famous song "Tipitina." Unlike Monk, who revisited songs without ever making them seem simple, Longhair was making party music, and his constant attention to a tune such as "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" had the effect of transforming an energetic R&B tune into an ingrained cultural anthem. He remained a serious musician, and dropped long euphoric solos into his performances, but these live records show that his music was always about connecting with and entertaining a hedonistic crowd. The omnipresence of his music in New Orleans even now, more than 20 years after his death, is proof that he did just that.

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More by John DeFore

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