Next year marks the the seventieth anniversary of what may be the best jazz concert ever given in North America, or arguably the best concert of any kind. It was a one-off, which featured a band and their solitary gig, two of jazz's great partners having what was their last round-up together, a saxophone gone missing, a heavyweight boxing match, Canadians who stayed home or at the bar, and an unlikely recording that exists solely because one of the members of the ad-hoc band thought it might be wise to document the event. Add it all up, and you have an amazing narrative, and some of the finest music--which I'll break down, cut by cut--that one may ever hear.
The day was May 15, 1953, the place Massey Hall in Toronto, where a band billed simply as "The Quintet"--as if the definite article said everything that needed to be said--was assembled to give a sort of representation of what modern jazz was, or had come to, which was either good or bad, depending upon which side one was on. Swing music was at a low point of its arc. Bebop had happened, but the core bebop purveyors were still pushing the possibilities of sound, morphing, mutating, evolving.
The band was comprised of Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charles Mingus on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Max Roach on drums. Lennie Tristano had been suggested by the organizers, before Parker advocated for Powell as the better choice.
This would be the last time that Parker and Gillespie would record together. We're at the start of Mingus's ascent, and I think this was a touchstone event for him, a sort of key to various doors which he would go on to open and stride through. This band never recorded anything else together. Parker couldn't find his sax, and had to play a plastic model. Mingus taped the gig, which is the only reason why we have the audio.
That same day, and at near enough the same time, was when Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott were squaring off in the ring. As a result, the concert was lightly attended--imagine having lots of empty seats around you at a gig like this--because people want to see the bout. There wasn't even enough money to pay the musicians their NSF checks, though somehow Parker was able to cash his. Gillespie had to wait for years.
What was in the minds of these two men? As I said, it's the last time they will record music together, but this is also one of the final great moments of Parker on record that there is, be it with Gillespie or otherwise. I want to look at where each of these men and artists were at in their careers and lives when they all came to assemble on that stage in Toronto. No one would think that they hadn't made music together often; for years, decades. They had played together in different configurations, and they knew each other's work intimately. How they made sound, heard sound, their approaches to sound. Assemble an All-Star team in sports and that team, no matter the level of the talent, will look like a team that hasn't been together long. That's not what we get here.
I want to examine what makes a gig legendary. What perhaps needs to be in place--or not in place--in addition to the music. Recently I saw Spiritualized and Jeff Beck. Both shows were fine. But they were so professional, so slick, so predictable in a way. The set lists were predictable, the venues sterile, the crowds what one expected the crowds to be. There was no unpredictability. I think we want unpredictability with art, and that a form of that unpredictability marks the best gigs. One went out for a pint back in the day, and there was Joy Division up on the stage, with faulty monitors, playing front of twenty people, trying out a new song, with the singer announcing between numbers that the last bus was leaving, in case anyone had to make it home. That is where magic may bloom. Not every night, and on rare nights. But I think that notion of unity of time, setting, and action is crucial.
Such stuff is the spirit of invention when it comes to the best gigs. I think these men looked at who wasn't there, and that made them play harder, better, tighter. Took more risks. They played for the making of art, and for each other, as if the individuals of the band itself were also a form of audience. And Bud Powell--he was a wonder. He is, for me, the perfect jazz pianist, because he could do with others what he could do on his own, and he was always an integrator who simultaneously led and provided glue with his brilliance. I can't say this about Art Tatum, who tended to stand apart even from the units in which he performed. Powell is as talented as anyone in this group. Really, it's him and Parker were one to draw up a depth chart, which is why, I'm sure, Parker insisted on Powell's inclusion.
Mingus put the recording out on his own label. Parker had to be billed as Charlie Chan--a nod to the films of the same name--on account of contractual conflicts. The gig comprised fifteen numbers and it represents a whole new direction in bebop. There's a ripening at play, in which the manic rhythms and drive of bop opens into what is almost a baroque sensibility. It puts me in mind of the Grateful Dead in 1977, when they realized they could take their time, that the strictures of pace were entirely within their command and dominion. There was a maturity central to the music they made during that year, a maturity of acceptance, which itself is freeing. That's what I hear with the Massey Hall gig. Could the best jazz band ever have played together for solely a night? A portion of a night at that?
In a way, that seems appropriate to me. Thematically apt, given this music and its improvisatory nature, its code of freedom, the triumph of evanescence as a paradoxical form of posterity. We have five legends here for the price of one, and then the larger legend of the band known simply as "The Quintet." This is the Legends band, with their own legend, and their own legendary story, and legendary music.