Posted: October 9th, 2008
I’m not a superstitious guy, but still. From a stack of 15 or so CDs I pulled from my collection as candidates for review, Jazz at Massey Hall presented itself first. I fed it to my CD player and read the original liner notes, written by one Bill Coss back when liner notes were printed on the LP liner. The personnel for this live show taped in Toronto in 1953 was–get this–Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on the bass, and Max Roach on drums. The five giants tinnily played along in low-fidelity. I had just about decided not to write about it (Bird hadn’t gotten to his solo yet), but then I saw on the liner notes that the show had been on May 15–48 years ago to the day.
Now, I’m not a superstitious guy, but still, I kept on listening–and kept reading the extraordinary story behind the recording. That night, Bird and Dizzy almost didn’t make it to the show, having stayed behind at LaGuardia Airport so that Mingus’s wife could get on an earlier plane. When they finally did show up, Parker didn’t have a saxophone and had to borrow a plastic alto. Bird on a plastic horn! Then, when the show started, the hall was only a quarter full; the promoters had scheduled it on the same night as the famous rematch between heavyweights Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott. But this show of jazz heavyweights went on, and Mingus, luckily for us, taped it for release on his own fledgling Debut label.
Perhaps because of the rushed quality of the circumstances, perhaps because Mingus didn’t know anything about setting up microphones, the sound quality on this recording is far from ideal, which might be why you never heard of it. But don’t let that stop you–Bird’s performance is surely worth the price of admission. Even the most dedicated ornithologist could not tell that Bird was playing a stranger’s plastic horn. He sounds clearer than he himself probably was at that point. He takes astounding, exhilarating chances, toying with melodies, tinkering with the songs, but never losing the line or abandoning the tune for abstraction. In Bird’s solos you always know where you are–in the hands of a genius. In spite of bad recording equipment and half a century’s worth of dust, you can still discern that Bird was playing beyond the reach of his fellow musicians.
The music abruptly begins, with “Perdido.” The quintet starts out quiet but strong, with Bird getting a big hand from the crowd. Bud Powell does his immortal swinging thing. Roach pounds the skins until they throb. Mingus offers Zen stability. By all accounts, the five musicians fought incessantly during their trip to Canada, with Mingus improbably serving as the calming force. This is true for Mingus during the show as well. His heavy bass frames the remarkable work of these master improvisers.
The problem with the microphones is more evident on the next track, Dizzy’s “Salt Peanuts.” Powell’s solo is far away and Roach comes across as way too loud, the song hanging by the thread of his drum roll. The track features Mingus’s rapping to the audience, introducing his “worthy constituent, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie.” The five inventors of bebop go on to play a white-hot version of this quintessential bop classic. The quintet brings it down for Bird’s trademark “All the Things You Are.” They round out the set with “Wee,” a very cool “Hot House,” and again, a Dizzy song, “Night in Tunisia,” for which Mingus plucks a sexy, sinuous bass line.
Once this CD gets under your skin, the sound quality won’t bother you. Played under poor conditions, these five professionals didn’t just get the job done, they gave an amazing, ego-free performance for a handful of lucky people. And Bird, likely clouded with dope, only a couple years from his death by overdose, playing a plastic sax, lifts the proceedings past virtuosity to eternal art. Dizzy sure works it, and Roach was fresh, but Bird soars.
- Charlie Parker – Sax (Alto)
- Dizzy Gillespie – Trumpet
- Charles Mingus – Bass
- Bud Powell – Piano
- Max Roach – Drums
- Salt Peanuts
- All The Things You Are
- Hot House
- A Night In Tunisia