Charlie Parker plays a plastic saxophone?!!
“It’s been 50 years since the greatest jazz concert that nobody went to see. On May 15, 1953, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach played their first and only concert together right here (Massey Hall) in Toronto.
It began when the New Jazz Society of Toronto had an idea to round up the top bebop musicians of the day for a concert. After unsuccessfully trying to reach Bud Powell (who was hospitalized for mental illness) and Dizzy Gillespie, they finally got hold of Charles Mingus. The event was scheduled once Mingus contacted Gillespie, Parker, Roach, and Powell’s manager, Oscar Goodstein.
When the group, with Mingus’ wife and Goodstein in tow, arrived at the airport in New York they found that only five tickets to Toronto had been booked. Parker and Gillespie stayed behind to catch the next flight. Upon arrival in Toronto the quintet was not exactly happy to see a half full venue. There was a big boxing match going on the same night between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott which everyone, including Gillespie, wanted to watch. Musicians and audience members disappeared periodically to check on the fight at the bar across the street.
So Dizzy’s mind was on the fight, Bud Powell had just come off electric shock treatments at a sanitarium, and Charlie Parker was playing a plastic saxophone because he had sold the brass one for heroin.* To their credit, Mingus and Roach were completely sober (whatever sober means for a jazz musician in the 1950s). Somehow they pulled off a great show.
More bad news followed later when the band was informed that not enough tickets were sold to pay them. There are two versions of what happened next. One story says that Parker forced the promoters to write cheques from their personal bank accounts, and the other says that they were given the recordings of the show as payment. Since Mingus is most often credited for recording the show, I imagine the first story is probably true; it goes on to say that Gillespie was paid $450, Parker $200, Roach, $150, and local players $25.
The resulting recordings were far from perfect. Recorded over the hall’s outdated public address system, the tapes were so full of background noise that Mingus’ bass was almost completely lost.
Parker, who was signed to the Verve label, approached Norman Granz with the tapes, saying he wanted one hundred thousand dollars for them. When Granz understandably turned the tapes down (remember, this is 1953), Mingus and Roach decided to put them out on their own label, Debut Records. Mingus overdubbed the bass, Parker was credited as “Charlie Chan” to avoid a label dispute, and the album was released. Jazz at Massey Hall was a huge success, making everyone wish they had been there.
If you’re going to pick up this disc, make sure you get the remastered version that was put out by Fantasy. Much of the noise has been removed, and it’s a lot easier on the ears.
So this year, 2003, is the 50th anniversary of Jazz at Massey Hall. On May 15th there will be a celebratory concert with current stars Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Kenny Garrett (alto sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Dave Holland (bass), and Roy Haynes (drums). The only original member of the quintet still with us is Max Roach, who apparently has been invited to attend.
Opening for the group will be the Massey Hall All-Stars, featuring members of the original CBC All-Stars band that opened for the quintet in 1953. All-Stars tenor player Hart Wheeler, now 81 years old, was recently interviewed for the upcoming show. He doesn’t seem to see what all the fuss is about: “It was just another jazz concert, not earth-shattering. There were only 1,500 people there (in a hall seating 2,765) and no one cared. We didn’t know about its greatness although as musicians we liked it. It’s like a piece of art – the artist dies and then someone creates ballyhoo about the work and it’s wonderful.”
* The plastic sax ended up being worth something after all; in 1994 it sold at an auction for $150,000 to the mayor of Kansas City and to American Jazz Museum, located in Parker’s home town of Kansas City, Missouri.”
Written by: MM
Dizzy Gillespie (about “Jazz at Massey Hall”)
“It was a financial fiasco because all our checks bounced. Charlie Parker cashed his at the box office, so he was ‘in’. Then the master tapes were taken by Mingus and put out, and we didn’t receive any money for years and years and years and years.”
Max Roach (about “Jazz at Massey Hall”):
“We never rehearsed, we just got to the stand and said ‘Salt Peanuts’ or this or that. ‘Cos we knew among ourselves what we had been playing on 52nd Street … [Charles Mingus] was from the West Coast and had a different repertoire … and Mingus’ feelings was hurt, quite frankly, because we didn’t give him a chance. We just went right into it, assuming that Mingus knew what we were going to do anyway. During the intermission he complained.”
“When we got back to New York, a lot of it had been recorded so you couldn’t hear the bass anyway, so on some of the pieces [Charles Mingus] just dubbed himself in. I think it’s one of the earliest times that a person overdubbed themselves.”