Underground East Austin jazz club Monks celebrates fifth anniversary, looks toward future

Max Robison, Life and Arts Reporter

Past a rusted iron gate, between for rent storage spaces and warehouses, a sign reads “MONKS.” Red brick encloses the inside and no windows violate the space’s tranquility. The tables illuminate themselves by candlelight — except for lights on the stage, where a combo warms up, cracking wise all the while.

Collin Shook, the proprietor, just celebrated Monks Jazz Club’s fifth anniversary. Between beginning as a pop-up in a tire shop, weathering a global pandemic and acquiring a location on Pedernales Street in East Austin, Monks quickly became a staple within Austin’s musical landscape and looks to the future.

“It’s just been growing for five years,” Shook said. “It’s a slow burn, and built into a place where now I have this really cool art studio, and I can curate an ongoing series of my favorite music.”

Shook, originally from Dallas, played piano from a young age and jazz since his teens. He cut his teeth as a working session and gig player in Tucson, Arizona.

“I was playing gigs, about four or five nights a week with my trio, wrote and recorded two albums,” Shook said.

In 2015, Shook moved to Austin and became involved in the local jazz scene, showing up to jam at the Elephant Room.

“He just popped in fresh from town,” Dr. Adrian Ruiz, a trumpeter who’s played in the Austin area for a decade, said. “And you know, we just kind of hit it off, and it was a short while after that where he was the regular pianist for my quintet.”

The genesis for Monks came in 2016. Though Shook wanted to open a venue, the financials seemed impossible — until some of his friends got clearance to open a gallery in a tire shop slated for demolition in a month’s time. He put four pallets together and his grand piano on a rolling stage.

“I was just like, ‘Man, this is cool!’” Ryan Hagler, a musician who’s now the bassist in Shook’s trio, said. “What really struck me, and what’s so important, is that you weren’t allowed to talk when the music’s on. It’s a whisper policy. The focus here is on the music. It’s like watching a movie.”

Shook moved his pop-up to various locations for a few years, including a bike shop and Revival Coffee. Then came 2020. “When the pandemic hit, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna do any of this live streaming stuff, Monks is about an organic in-person listening room experience, right?’”

The streaming proved to be a success, allowing Shook to move into a location in a piano shop in East Austin.

Now, Monks hosts multiple shows a week and showcases jazz from Austin and beyond. Full of ideas for the future, Shook hopes to open up a more conventional venue, start a record label and continue to stream concerts.

“I’m excited to see what (Shook) comes up with, you know,” Hagler said. “I know it’s going to continue, and it’s going to grow, and it’s going to be positive for the Austin music scene.”