Wednesday, May 15, 2013

SALT PEANUTS!!! SALT PEANUTS!!! – Massey Hall, 60 years after

Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker
Massey Hall, Toronto, May 15, 1953
Photo by Harold Robinson

Sixty years ago today, at about 20:30, Toronto time, everything was ready for a historical evening. The best quintet in history, reuniting the founder fathers of bebop, a bunch of jazz revolutionaries, were going to play together in a summit meeting of music. This is the infamous night when a plastic sax had to be borrowed for Charlie Parker, because he hadn't brought his instrument. The night when he and his former soulmate, Dizzy Gillespie, exchanged musical punches. The night of Bud Powell's first appearance after his release from hospital.

You probably knew that. Every jazz fan knows that. However, half of the paragraph above is untrue. Of course, we've read that story many times, and it's very likely that we will read it again. But it is essentially false. Untrue. Fake. Even so, it's a story that has been repeated over and over again in the media, either general or specialized, in Spanish and in English.

In the few press notices about the concert, and the early record reviews, there's no mention to those circumstances. It's true that there aren't many in-depth articles about it either. A quick search on the available sources immediately points to a book: Bird Lives by Ross Russell.

This book was published to general acclaim from all quarters, including some seasoned critics. As regards Russell, he was around Parker a lot between 1946 and 1948, but it does seem that they didn't maintain contact after that, which reflects on the waning consistency of Russell's book towards the end. Furthermore, even though it's true that we owe Russell the extraordinary "Dial" recordings, he also released the infamous "Lover Man" against Parker's wishes, and in the following decade he kept on publishing alternate takes without paying, or consulting with, the artist. His experience as a pulp fiction writer seems relevant here, too.

Russell's story contains all the elements in the canonical version of this event in the first pages of chapter 24, "The Jazz Baroness". In just about one paragraph he tells how Parker arrived in Toronto without an instrument, and how he was lent a sax made of plastic; the rivalry between Dizzy and Bird; Bud Powell's first appearance on a stage after being released from a hospital, where he had received electroshock treatment; the "general inebriety" and heavy drinking at the "Brass Rail", a bar opposite the theatre; and how Mingus and Max Roach were the only ones sober throughout the evening.

The question is: if Russell wasn't in Toronto, where does this story come from? Who are his sources?

Going through the archives, it's interesting to see how a passing comment can become the seed of a plague. On December 30, 1953, Down Beat published a short review of the first two records taken from the concert, Jazz at Massey Hall, Vol. 1 and Jazz at Massey Hall, Vol. 2, with a half set by the Quintet and Bud Powell's whole set as a trio, respectively. In that note, this can be read: "To use an understatement, there was tension even before [All the Things You Are... collapses] between Bud and the horns". Based only on what he's listening to, the writer talks about the musicians' "exhibitionism", but regarding the "tension", it'd seem that he's referring strictly to music.

Jazz Today, May 1957
In May 1957, two years after Bird's death, American magazine Jazz Today, carried the review of the 12-inch LP with all of the Quintet's music, which opens with this: "This is music of conflict. From the outset, this is music of anger, frustration and violence." The rest of the text is an interpretation of the album, and jazz in general, from that point of view without any reasoning, for which presumably there'd be no room in the short space granted to a record review. On the opposite corner, in an article about records by Charlie Parker in Down Beat, from April 9, 1964, the authors do not note any of that anger, frustration, or violence. Opinions, metaphors... everybody's entitled to their own, I guess.

Brief aside: one of the features of the history of this concert is the collection of superlatives tagged to it. From Quintet of the Year on the original album, somewhat justified by the fact that this was the only time these five musicians played together, to the grandiose The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever (how do you gauge that?) on a 2-LP reissue, those who've written about this event have elevated publicity catch-phrases to critical assessment. What'd be interesting to know is whether the label World's Greatest Jazz Band has been thrown in by mistake: there is a live recording from Massey Hall by that band indeed, but it was made in December 1972 and the musicians include, among others, Bobby Hackett, Bob Wilber, and Ralph Sutton.

The next big piece on our concert appeared in March 1970, in British magazine Jazz Journal. This is quite long, but it hardly dwells in extra-musical considerations, except for a few dismissive comments about the audience. Those were contested in two letters to the editor by two readers, published two issues later, in May. Unlike the author, both did attend the concert.

Jazz Journal, May 1970
The first reader contradicts the article with regard of the audience, and reveals that Mingus's bass is hardly audible in the original tapes; he states that, despite his apparent absent-mindedness, Bud Powell played "like an angel"; and he explains how the organizers took Dizzy and Bird back to the theatre by "dragging" them from the "Brass Rail", the bar opposite.

By contrast, the second reader agrees with the article regarding the attitude of the audience, and makes some general comments on the organization of the concert. What's striking is his last paragraph, where he says that "The story had it that Powell was just recovering from a nervous breakdown and this was his first public appearance since leaving hospital. Whether or not this was true, it was certainly believable". On Parker: “he was so incredibly inebriated he could barely walk […] he didn't even have his own horn. Apparently, he arrived in town without it and someone lent him a plastic alto to play the concert – not one of those white ones like Ornette Coleman used to play but a transparent model”. Towards the end, he draws a parallel between the concert and that night's boxing match, and he says: “I guess it's no secret that Bird was the winner in Massey Hall”.

There is not a single statement by a direct witness, before or after this, reflecting this account of the event. Still, it does sound familiar, doesn't it?

Russell's book came out two years later, in 1972, and comparing his story with these two letters, especially the second, it's quite clear that this was his source. He even reproduces the mistake in the name of the bar, possibly a slip of the memory by the first correspondent: the actual name was "Silver Rail". Why he went for the second letter, effectively certifying it as factual by ignoring the "story had it...", the "apparently", and the "whether or not this was true" is not known and it's quite irrelevant anyway.

It's interesting (and easier) to see what's happened with this piece of information in the Spanish-speaking world. In September 1995, the Spanish translation of Russell's book was published. Until 2008, when Gary Giddins's Celebrating Bird was translated into Spanish, we didn't have anything else on Bird (and that book doesn't really deal with Massey Hall anyway). Before the internet, and the desertic soil that is jazz bibliography in Spanish, Russell was our only text. Actually, it had the only detailed account of the concert in any language, or so we thought.

In later years, different versions of this story, all of them based on Russell's, all of them with the same apparent authority, have been published in Spain. In the specialized media, a large encyclopedia, a significant magazine, and a relevant website (this, in up to three different pages)... have reproduced Russell's tale in varying degrees of gloom and drama, as well as the odd sceptic comment. Interestingly, more than one of those have included contradictory versions at different times.

There is, however, an alternative version of all this. It's been around for about 24 years, no less. It was written by Canadian journalist Mark Miller and published as Cool Blues – Charlie Parker in Canada 1953, a well-documented text, with quotes from direct witnesses and organizers of the concert, previously unissued photographs, etc. Miller's work is also the basis or another volume devoted to the event, Quintet of the Year by Geoffrey Haydon, who adds a long interview with Max Roach, with whom he was friends, and the testimony from a British fan who travelled all the way to Canada to see Bird. In any case, the one chapter devoted to the night is based on Miller's account.

Grafton Acrylic for sale
London, June 2012
So, what did actually happen? It's not clear how Bird got to Toronto, but he did, and on time, with his Grafton Acrylic. In a radio broadcast from the Bandbox in New York on March 23, 1953, two months earlier, he mentioned the Grafton and explained to MC Leonard Feather that it was "a gift from an Englishman, over three years ago...". According to one witness, Bird did have a triple whisky before he got on the stage, but he wasn't drunk.

(To watch Bird's Grafton in action, see this)

Dizzy was a bit brusque when the organizers offered him a gig in Toronto, but they reached an agreement and he played. Much has been made of his clowning, as if clowning were unusual in Dizzy. As for the mutual hostility with Bird, Dizzy himself denied it. Max Roach was the perfect gentleman, but years later he complained about the amount of "b. s." he'd had to read about this concert. As for Mingus, according to Roach, the only tense moment they had was due to the fact that he was the only one who wasn't in New York in the 1940s, when bop was being brewed in Harlem and on 52nd Street. In the context of Massey Hall, he's been thrown in together with the pioneers of that music, but Mingus only got to New York in 1951, and although he must have been familiar with Bird's and Dizzy's recordings, he was not terribly interested, as it can be appreciated from his own recordings. In an interview made in Canada in 1975, Mingus said about this concert: "to tell you the truth, I didn't want to make it". When he was pressed for a reason, he replied: "Because I wasn't a bebopper, man. I was never a fan of bebop. I was a Duke Ellington fan."

And Bud Powell? 1953 was his most active year, playing either at Birdland in NYC, or in other American cities. He had been released from Creedmoor in early February, having received insulin—not electro—shock treatments, and his contract was signed through an agency (he was better paid than anyone else in the band). He may have needed a guardian to stop him from drinking alcohol, and it's true that he was led to the piano, but just by listening to what he plays there should be at least some doubt about him being catatonic or drunk.

There's more to be read about the concert, but this is the gist of it. Ross Russell's tale will keep on being parrotted, even though there's a more credible and better founded story written and published about it. In any case, all this opens up questions about how information circulates, about the apparent contradiction between admiration and respect for certain artists and, at the same time, the carelessness they are written about, as well as the reasons why people are so inclined to swallow an over-sordid and over-tragic history of jazz. About this, one day we'll have to talk about the terrible influence of Clint Eastwood's Bird, especially in the Spanish-speaking word.

As Francis Davis wondered, "why is it always raining in jazz films?"


This concert has been released many times. The original album came out on Debut, Mingus and Max Roach's label, today part of the Concord Music Group. In 1990, Fantasy, then owner of the masters, published a boxed set with the complete Debut recordings of Charles Mingus. This comprised all available material from the concert, including both versions, dubbed and undubbed, of the tracks Mingus had "corrected" after the concert.

All the music released can be found on Spotify, here; in YouTube, here.

  • Russell, Ross: Bird Lives (Da Capo, 1996; original from 1973)
  • Miller, Mark: Cool Blues – Charlie Parker in Canada 1953 (Nightwood Editions, 1989)
  • Miller, Mark: “Jazz at Massey Hall”, Coda magazine, May/June, 2003
  • Haydon, Geoffrey: Quintet of the Year (Aurum Press, 2002)


Brewsk Litovsk said...

Thanks you so much for this splendid article. Man, I can't tell you how often I have listened to this concert; and I'm really happy now, that there are CD's, containing the original recordings without Mingus' sometimes really too loud overdubbing.

Anyway, I still think that Bud was loaded. But not enough, because he plays great ... when it comes to his improvisations. Dizzy was never happy with Bud's comping.

OK, there are some (minor) irritations when you're listening closely. At "All The Things You Are" - which is one of the best numbers of the whole concert - Bud gets completely lost during Dizzy's solo. At the most far-out point, Dizzy tenderly quotes the theme for getting Bud on the right track again.

But this is definitely no "problem", or a flaw. It's a very interesting, an adventurous moment, a great example for what's jazz all about in the first place:

Communication, about listening to your fellow musicians, it's all about that.

As suspected: "Wee" was the first number they played that evening, as chaotic as it sounds. They had no rehearsals. They used that speedy intro for warming up.

As I wrote at my blog: It was "Hot House" where they all had their stuff together. From then on, everything magically fell into place.

And Dizzy's "clowning"?

Hey, they still were friends, "partners in crime", so to speak. When it came to music, Dizzy took it dead-serious. Just listen to *all* his solos: Pure genius, thoughtful, and well conceived; jazz improvisation at its best.

And Bird? As usual: There's nothing, musically, which could have irritated him. He played his top game, and it was always "a home run", as Red Rodney told an interviewer.

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina said...

Thanks for your comment. I've seen a new reissue starting with "Wee", and I'd like to know whether there's any hard proof for that.

Given the comments on Mingus not being as familiar as the others with bop repertoire, it'd make more sense to me that they'd start with a piece of Ellingtonia, mid-tempo, like "Perdido".


Brewsk Litovsk said...

Why I think that "Wee" could be the 1st tune they performed with the quintet?

It's obvious that there are a lot of formal problems occurring during this number, perhaps due to the incredibly fast pace of the performance. Again: They had no time to rehearse.

You've made a point with "Perdido", it's a nice tune for warming up. But Mingus can be heard, playing "Hot House" (together with Lionel Hampton & Theodore 'Fats' Navarro), which proofs that he had no problems with the tune(s).

Mingus' main problem was his own sound on the tracks, not the music itself (otherwise he would have never released it, right?).

Anyway, here are two recent releases of the concert (#2 has a 16-page booklet); both have the tracks listed with reversed sets:

Jazz At Massey Hall (#1)

Jazz At Massey Hall (#2)

Although there is no "hard proof" for this order, I'd rather believe that the quintet wanted to start their 1st set with a screamer, an exclamation mark, disregarding the lack of a rehearsal. They were pros, and they knew: "Now, or never!"

They finished their 2nd set with "52nd Street Theme", which also hints to the "reversed-sets-theory".

After all, it's the music that counts. May everyone program his CD-players as they like. This is timeless jazz, and there will be people listening to it in a hundred years from now.

jon said...

I would say one of the main reasons for the stories about conflicts among the musicians stemmed from the original liner notes for the album, written by Bill Coss, who was the editor of the old jazz magazine, Metronome.

Coss wrote a tone poem on the back of the album. He referred to Bird "blowing Bud off his back on 'Things'," etc. Lots of drama throughout Coss' liner notes---some of it about bebop was quite real.

The music that night dispels any notion that the musicians were unprepared or disinterested or too out of it to play. On the quintet tracks---I've never heard Bud better. The whole musical atmosphere conjured up by the quintet was uniquely electric. Every solo on every track belongs in some kind of hall of fame...