Weekly Posting, Juneteenth, 2020

Bird, Diz, Max, and Servicemen, Town Hall, June 22nd, 1945

On June 22, 1945, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie performed at New York City’s Town Hall, in a concert presented by the New Jazz Foundation. This fledgling organization apparently suffered an early death. After producing two high-profile Town Hall concerts (both featuring Bird and Diz) and some record releases, it seems to have evaporated. It’s founder, jazz promoter Monte Kay, went on to success, booking Bird at the Royal Roost in 1949 and setting the stage for the opening of Birdland In 1950.

Despite producing some very memorable music, the Town Hall concerts were poorly reviewed, because many of the jazz luminaries slated to appear failed to show up. This may have contributed to the NJF’s speedy demise. Ironically, Bird was NOT among the missing on June 22nd, although he was fashionably late and chose to make a dramatic entrance. As a matter of fact, the audience was served a heaping portion of Bird and Diz, who had the entire first half to themselves. They played to a large and receptive crowd of modern jazz enthusiasts, and this performance was a watershed moment for the new music. Throughout 1945,“Symphony Sid“ Torin made a point of promoting emerging artists through his radio show on WHOM. He, too, was a founding member of the NJF, and he touted the concerts nonstop on air. Consequently, close to 1,300 fans packed into Town Hall to hear the new music, a statistic that boggles the mind by today’s standards.

There have been many holy grails in jazz history, foremost among them the Dean Benedetti recordings, which were the subject of speculation for decades before they were eventually found. As legendary as the Town Hall concerts were, though, no recordings were ever rumored to exist. So the jazz world was taken completely by surprise in 2004 when acetates of the June 22nd concert were discovered. In this instance, all the speculation began after the fact and continues today, because their origins still remain a mystery. The dealer who found them wouldn’t reveal his sources, and even if he had, it wouldn’t have explained how they came into existence in the first place.

The excitement of their discovery was tempered by the fact that the performances seemed incomplete. The music cut off abruptly at the end of each disc because, it was assumed, the disc needed to be flipped over in order to continue recording, marring the performance with a gap. On closer inspection, however, and after considerable delay, it turned out this wasn’t the case at all. The concert had been recorded with two synchronized disc cutters, the second disc picking up where the first disc left off. Miracle upon miracle, the concert was complete.

The recording process itself is circumstantial evidence. Recording with two disc cutters was an expensive technique, and this rules out amateur recording. Furthermore, the labels on the acetates themselves provided another clue, bearing the words “ Town Hall“ and nothing else. The prevailing theory, then, is that Monte Kay, who was independently wealthy, paid the professional engineers at Town hall to record the concert. The trail ends here and this guess is likely all it’s possible to ever know.

The recording quality itself doesn’t offer conclusive proof. While much better than average for 1945, the microphone placement doesn’t live up to professional standards, and the horns are frustratingly under-recorded throughout. But, by all accounts, the concert was disorganized at best, with no stage management of any kind, and it seems unlikely anyone knew they were being recorded, all of which could have thwarted the best efforts of the engineers. In short, though, the recording quality is vastly better than most live Bird. The Dean Benedetti recordings, when finally unearthed, proved to be a sonic landscape only seasoned diehards dared to tread.

There is one unexpected sonic delight: you can hear pianist Al Haig clearly at all times. He is one of the most underrated pianists in modern jazz, in part, perhaps, because he was so self-effacing. His playing may not seem remarkable until you recalibrate your ears to 1945. Aside from Bud Powell, clearly his strongest influence, no other pianist was playing a fully modern style at that point in time. His comping alone demonstrates the depth of his understanding and prescience. In fact, this was the first group comprised entirely of first generation modernists. Even the band on Dizzy’s February 1945 recording date, groundbreaking though it was, contained Clyde Hart and Cozy Cole, transitional figures from the swing era. And it was another transitional figure,“Big Sid” Catlett, on drums on the subsequent May date, not Max Roach. As it happens, Catlett was performing that night at Town Hall, as well, and he sits in on “ Hot House“, stirring up the crowd with his solo and demonstrating that he, too, understood the parameters of the new music.

That’s why I chose “ Hot House” as one of today’s musical offerings, in addition to the fact that Bird plays some outrageous double time that he never would’ve attempted in the studio, and Haig takes a creditable sol. But “A Night In Tunisia“ is the main event, because it is the first recording we have of Bird navigating the four-bar break that leads into the solo. Ross Russell made much ado about Bird’s similar efforts on the 1946 Dial recording. It was really a set piece on that occasion, and Bird uses more-or-less the same conception at Town Hall, but demonstrates (as do later recordings) that his live attempts were more spontaneous.

I doubt history has preserved the reason for Bird’s late arrival, but it’s early by his standards. He makes his entrance during Dizzy’s solo on the first number, “Bebop” and I have included an excerpt of the crowd’s reaction when he comes into view. As always, it’s hard to know what Bird was thinking but easy to marvel at the result.

Hot House
A Night In Tunisia
Bird Makes His Entrance

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