On Friday, May 15th, 1953, Charlie Parker (Bird), Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach performed at Massey Hall in Toronto, at an event sponsored by the New Jazz Society. No other gig in Bird’s life has been so thoroughly documented. There’s even a well researched and entertaining book about it, Quintet Of The Year, by Geoffrey Haydon.
Over the years, the recordings made at Massey Hall that night (by Mingus and Roach) have been issued and reissued in many forms. One release was hyperbolically titled “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”. Everyone can make their own judgment about that, but this name misses the point. Given the individuals involved, it’s a miracle that the gig ever happened at all, and that the music it produced was so transcendent. It should have been titled “The Jazz Concert Least Likely to Succeed.”
The New Jazz Society of Toronto was an idealistic group of young bebop enthusiasts eager to bite off more than they could chew. They hatched the simple yet foolhardy plan to assemble the foremost progenitors of the new music for a single performance, and their choice of venue was the cavernous Massey Hall. It’s possible they overestimated the amount of space needed for this enterprise. On the other hand, jazz was still a viable commercial force (not yet obliterated by rock and roll) and the extraordinary musicians on offer certainly should have filled a 3,500 seat concert hall.
It didn’t help that the New Jazz Society was competing with the televised bout for the heavyweight championship between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott. Marciano was white and Walcott was black, and racial undertones made this more than a simple title fight. Dizzy in particular was rooting for Walcott. In fact, the intermission was timed so that everyone in the concert hall could leave to watch the fight and then return to hear the rest of the music. To the disappointment of many, Marciano knocked out Walcott in the first round, regaining the title and saving everyone a lot of time.
Prizefight or no prizefight, the music at Massey Hall that night was sublime. Something allowed the five members of the quintet to lower their defenses and rise to the occasion. There wasn’t a lot of precedent for this. When Bird joined Dizzy onstage at Carnegie Hall in 1947, he had every intention of delivering a musical knockout punch to his former associate, thus demonstrating to the world that he was the chief architect of the new music. He succeeded, but at a cost. Although his playing is extraordinarily beautiful, it also has an aggressive edge so sharp it almost makes you wince at times. Yet Bird brought none of this baggage with him to Massey Hall. His playing is remarkably serene, even in the face of Dizzy’s inevitable clowning. (The roguish trumpet virtuoso does something behind Bird’s opening solo that makes the women in the front rows squeal with laughter. Bird just sails right through.)
As for Bird and Bud, it seems they were too much alike to get along. Bud’s mental problems were of different order entirely, but both men were highly organized musical thinkers who led highly disorganized lives. They had been traveling in the same musical circles since the early 40s, yet there’s no record of any friendship, nor any falling out that might have ended one. Musically, Bud’s attraction to Bird couldn’t have been stronger, but they seemed to repel each other on a personal level. Live recordings reveal that Bird never tired of needling Bud on the bandstand, chatting during his solos or trying out reeds or barging in at the top of the form and cutting him short. Massey Hall is the exception that proves the rule.
Charles Mingus had an abiding love for Bird’s music, which he credited for changing his life, but he was no paragon of emotional stability, nor was he inclined toward diplomacy. Earlier in the year, he had landed the bass chair in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, an extraordinary opportunity. But a heated exchange on the bandstand with trombonist Juan Tizol spun out of control. When Tizol drew a knife, Mingus ran out to the hallway and returned with a fire ax. His swing missed Tizol, but he proceeded to reduce a wooden chair to kindling. All of this happened in front of a live audience at the Apollo Theater. Mingus was fired, a setback that at least left him free to join the others at Massey Hall. Before the quintet took the stage, shouting could be heard from the dressing room, and it’s quite possible that something set Mingus off, but there’s was no trace of animosity in the music that followed.
Max Roach had very real and longstanding friendships with everybody on the bandstand, no matter how difficult their personalities, and that as much as anything might explain the beatific music. His generosity of spirit may have united the forces that otherwise would have pulled in opposing directions.
All the usual problems came close to scuttling the entire endeavor. Bird didn’t show up at the airport for the flight to Toronto, forcing Dizzy to stay behind and search for him. Exactly where he was found is unknown, but they made the next flight. Then Bird gave Diz the slip as soon as they landed, disappearing into the city, thus there was no guarantee he would show up for the gig at all, let alone on time. And yet, to the surprise of one and all, he appeared at the appointed hour, equipped with his white plastic alto. He immediately announced, however, that he needed a drink, and this was an ominous sign. One of the promoters led him across the street to a bar called the Silver Rail, no doubt praying for divine intervention all the way. Bird ordered at triple scotch and tossed it back, but instead of ordering another he set down his glass, saying, “Dick, I’m ready”. Converted to Parker Alcohol Scale, this was the equivalent of a sip of beer, and there’s no indication of impaired reflexes that night, even after he returned from the very long intermission. This was miraculous in itself.
When Bud arrived at Massey Hall, he gave his handler, Oscar Goodstein, the slip as well. He turned up at the Park Plaza Hotel, proceeded to bum money from the promoters, took what little they had, and made a beeline for the bar. Minutes later, Mingus rushed up to them, asking if they’d seen Bud anywhere. When they pointed to the bar, he hurried off in pursuit. Even the smallest amount of alcohol wreaked havoc with Bud’s nervous system. It’s unclear if he actually succeeded in getting a drink, but he reportedly spent the afternoon with his eyes rolled back in his head so that only the whites were showing. And yet his playing that night is brilliant, offering one of the last great demonstrations of his mature style. Tragically, his deteriorating fine motor skills are in evidence, as well.
The recording of “All The Things You Are” made that night makes clear the dichotomy between Bud’s genius and his decline. While comping behind Bird’s solo, he seems to discover an entirely new conception on the spot, creating streams of chord voicings, four to the bar, much like rhythm guitarists of the Swing Era, but considerably more sophisticated. There is no evidence of him ever attempting this concept before Massey Hall. It provides Bird a shimmering backdrop that offsets the sound of his plastic saxophone, the aural equivalent of costume jewelry, if you will. Unfortunately, as Bud attempts to continue this over the course of Dizzy’s solo, he sails off the edge of the earth. Caught up in the rapture, he loses his place in the form, to the point where Dizzy has to return to the melody to get him back on track. This is a symptom of his growing neurological impairment, and he loses his place at other moments, all well, though not as noticeably. This would have been impossible earlier in his career. (Bud’s impairment was the direct result of a 1945 police beating in Philadelphia, in which he was repeatedly clubbed about the head.)
Because he lived life in double time, Bird was in a very different place by 1953. The competitive edge that had existed from the moment he met Diz in 1942 may have finally lost its impetus. In 1947, just six years earlier, Bird had been little more than a cult figure, whereas Dizzy had been branded “Mr. Bebop”. By the time he and Diz shared the stage at Massey Hall, however, Bird had been granted the recognition he deserved many times over. He presumably understood that his career was past its peak and his body was giving out. He was entering old age and he knew it. As he announces “Salt Peanuts” (in his classic stage voice) he refers to Dizzy as “my worthy constituent”, an oblique reference to the architect-of-bebop conflicts. (I pasted this announcement at the beginning of “All The Things You Are”.) These words have been parsed over the years in search of Bird’s true meaning, but the clearest indication of his feelings toward Dizzy may be in his tone of voice. It conveys warmth and sly humor, without an iota of ill-will. Combined with the mood that infused his playing that night, he might well have meant “All is forgiven”.