It has been called "the greatest jazz concert ever." On May 15, 1953 -- 50 years ago this Thursday -- alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach assembled at Massey Hall in Toronto for their first and only time as a unit. Bird (as Parker was known), Gillespie, Powell and Roach were among bebop's founding fathers back in New York; together with Mingus, who conspired to have their performance recorded, they comprised a bop fan's dream band.
In fact, that's exactly what they were, five names on a wish list drawn up one night by members of Toronto's New Jazz Society, who then went out and, against all probability, made it a reality.
The concert has become one of the most celebrated events in jazz history. The recording has been released and rereleased around the world and the particulars of the evening are the stuff of legend, not a little of it apocryphal. And now its 50th anniversary is being commemorated to the day with another one-time-only event that brings together trumpeter Roy Hargrove, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, with Max Roach -- the lone survivor from the original quintet -- expected to return as a guest of honour, health permitting. (As in 1953, a Toronto big band, this time led by Phil Nimmons, will open the evening.)
This is all very impressive. But really, the greatest jazz concert ever? Jazz lends itself to hype but not to absolutes. How about this, then: the greatest jazz concert ever recorded? That narrows the field a little more realistically. Or this: the greatest jazz concert ever recorded poorly and edited badly. Yes, that's even closer to the truth, although a recent CD, which has been remastered using "a 20-bit A/D converter with digital K2 interface," restores some of the sonic lustre and emotional urgency missing from earlier releases.
Hype (and digital interfacing) aside, the concert began as just another out-of-town engagement for its five principals. They had been signed individually by the New Jazz Society for fees ranging from $150 (Mingus and Roach) to $500 (Powell). The total cost of the quintet, $1,450, proved moot, however, when ticket sales -- little more than half the house -- failed to cover the Society's expenses. At least some of the musicians returned to New York unpaid.
Mingus, however, went home with the tapes of the concert and later in 1953 released the music on the Debut label.
The quintet accounts for just 47 minutes of music, six tunes in full and part of a seventh. Legends in jazz have been built on less. And this one has been handed down with several subtexts. One was the putative rivalry between Parker and Gillespie. Another was Powell's state of mind; he had been released from a New York mental-health centre just two months earlier. A third was Parker's use of a white, plastic saxophone.
More significantly, though, Massey Hall would be one of Parker's last, great hurrahs. Already in declining heath, he was dead within two years. (Powell lived until 1966, Mingus until 1979 and Gillespie until 1993.) In 1953, Parker was still playing well enough to rise rather magnificently to the occasion of a reunion with Gillespie, Powell and Roach -- an occasion that saw both history revisited and history made.
Roy Haynes used to work with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. The senior man at 78 in the commemorative quintet, the dapper little drummer is its living link to the music and musicians that Massey Hall will celebrate next week. As one of bop's house musicians during the late 1940s, along with fellow drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, Haynes was there when the new music was just taking shape.
"I remember being in the studio with Bud in 1949 when we did those records with Sonny Rollins," Haynes recalls in a telephone interview from his home on Long Island. He's talking about Bud Powell's Modernists. One of the tunes they recorded was 52nd Street Theme, which would be heard in passing at Massey Hall.
"Bud used to say, 'Motherfuckers'll be playing this shit 10 years from now!' And that was 1949. Now it's the year 2003."
Yes, 2003 and they're still playing bebop. Chick Corea, for example, formed a Bud Powell tribute band, with Haynes at the drums, just a few years back. More recently, Haynes himself put together the quintet Birds of A Feather to play music associated with Charlie Parker.
But let's get this straight: despite all appearances to the contrary, Haynes feels no particular obligation as one of bop's surviving originals to uphold its traditions.
"No," he says, matter-of-factly. " 'Bebop' is just a word. I guess I was part of that, and part of it was in me, but as far as 'upholding' it . . . well, I'd like to uphold the music but still be creative, still innovate . . .. My mind is open musically; I'm not just stuck in one thing."
A quick survey of his career backs up his contention. He began working professionally in swing bands around his hometown of Boston during the early 1940s, then moved at mid-decade to New York, where he would be associated with a wide range of artists, among them boppers Parker and Powell, singer Sarah Vaughan, modernists Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, and such younger popularists as Chick Corea and Pat Metheny.
If he has slowed down of late, he's not telling. "I have been so damn busy in the last year," he marvels. "My accountant was surprised when he saw all the money that was made. Just the other day, I paid the government, like, 50 thousand dollars . . I never thought I'd be this age and be this busy. It's incredible."
It's incredible, too, that Haynes remains in such fine drumming fettle. As heard on his most recent CD, Love Letters (Columbia) from the past May, his brisk, tickety-boom style is in excellent repair, immediately recognizable for its intricacy and surging energy.
"My right leg has been bothering me in the last couple of months," he admits. So, the bass drum is a little quieter these days, is it? "I didn't say that," he responds quickly, his voice rising in mock protest. "I didn't say that!"
Indeed, Haynes seems unstoppable, in mind as well as body. "I always look forward to performing. I always say it's my religion."
Globe jazz critic Mark Miller is the author of Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada, 1953 (Nightwood Editions, 1989).
The show of shows
Those who attended remember the concert well, though not in total accord.
Toronto drummer Archie Alleyne, then 20 years old and now an elder statesman on the local scene, recalls: "I was just getting into the music business and I really didn't have very much money, so in order to get in I had to sneak in the back door. I put a pair of drum sticks in my pocket and let them hang out. The guard thought I was part of the show. Just to see all those icons together was fabulous." From his vantage point up in the balcony, he watched Dizzy Gillespie clowning around and noted that Bud Powell seemed "a bit distant in his mood." Otherwise, "there was nothing really unusual going on as far as I was concerned. They were up there jamming, they knew what they were doing, and it was great." Some in attendance saw the quintet's performance differently. "It was very short and not too sweet," remembers one audience member, now a noted bandleader who prefers to remain off the record. "Less than an hour; very disorganized; everybody was in pretty mysterious shape."
Hart Wheeler, who played saxophone in the Toronto big band that opened the evening, is more cautious. "I don't think it was as big a deal at the time as it became," he suggests, adding that its importance wouldn't be recognized "until the scribes -- the critics, the writers, the spinners -- got at it and opened up the minds of the people who may have been there, or heard about it, or heard it on record."
As it happened, the review that appeared in The Globe and Mail was mixed. Alex Barris observed, "All in all, it was neither a great concert nor a bad one."
Some of that same ambivalence is reflected by British critics Richard Cook and Brian Morton in the current Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. They begin their review by referring to the Massey Hall performance as "perhaps the most hyped jazz concert ever, to an extent that the actuality is almost inevitably a disappointment." They conclude by calling it "a remarkable experience, not to be missed."