When five of the most celebrated jazz musicians of the age get together for a one-time concert you would expect something special. So when you have Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus, each a legend in his own right, joining together on the stage of Toronto’s Massey Hall in May of 1953, it is not strange that many consider their performance perhaps the greatest jazz concert ever.
Unfortunately for Toronto jazz fans Massey Hall was fairly empty that night, perhaps because the concert was scheduled in conflict with a heavyweight championship fight, but luckily for the rest of us Charles Mingus had the foresight to record it.
Mingus released that recording on his own Debut label under the title The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall. Sound quality was not bad considering that it was recorded with a single stage microphone on a borrowed tape recorder. The biggest problem was for Mingus, himself: Much of his bass work was missed by the backstage mike. Back in New York, he dubbed in bass passages to compensate for what the recording missed. It is a remastered version of this much praised album, often regarded as one of the essential jazz recordings, that is being released this month on the Jazz Classics label.
Although the men had not rehearsed before the performance, they had little trouble working together, perhaps not quite like a highly polished ensemble, but more like a collection of jamming all stars, each understanding, respecting, and accommodating the others’ talent. Parker, listed on the album as “Charlie Chan,” the famous Chinese detective, because of a contractual conflict, played a plastic Grafton alto sax. The story goes that he picked it up at the last minute because he’d sold his regular instrument to buy drugs. It doesn’t seem to have affected his playing. This is thought by many to be his last great performance before his untimely death two years later.
As the liner notes indicate, the Quintet took the stage after an opening performance by the CBS All Stars (a 16-piece big band) for a three-number set that lasted only about 25 minutes. There was an intermission for the fight fans, and then the concert resumed with a drum feature and a set with Powell and the rhythm section before the Quintet returned for three more numbers. In total the Quintet’s portion of the concert lasted something short of 50 minutes, but what a 50 minutes it was.
Parker may have been having his problems with drugs, but you can’t tell from his playing. His solo work is powerful and imaginative. Gillespie may have one of the wittiest trumpets around as he works quotations into his solos. Powell takes advantage of every moment he’s given and Roach works his magic throughout, while Mingus is solid. These are five musicians who are incapable of anything less than wonderful, and the album makes their joy in working together apparent.
The sets consist of six classic jazz pieces. They open with “Perdido” followed by the Gillespie composition, and one of the best performances of the evening, “Salt Peanuts.” There is a medley of “All the Things You Are” and Monk’s “52nd Street Theme.” “Wee,” “Hot House,” and Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” close out the album. If this isn’t classic be-bop at its greatest, I’m not sure how it could get much better.