Here it is: allegedly the “greatest jazz concert ever.” Generically known within cataloging circles as “The Quintet”, this is the only show performed jointly by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Many a jazz afficianado would gladly sacrifice their own grandmothers if it meant catching these five guys in action, yet this legendary 1953 Toronto program was surprisingly undersold. The concert was organized by the Toronto Jazz Society, a group of music enthusiasts who had less business savvy than your average promoter, so word did not get out like it should have. Most of the city went to see Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott pound each other that night. Bird arrived sans horn and borrowed a plastic alto (?) for the gig and was the only one properly paid afterwards. Hardly an auspicious back story, huh? So it comes as little surprise that the gig was almost not recorded. That was the rhythm section’s idea.
For years since, fans of ‘50s modern jazz have praised Mingus and Roach’s foresight to tape the show and Mingus’ gumption to issue the recording on his own label (he was only 31 at the time). Since then, The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall has been re-released many, many times. A 2004 pressing on the Jazz Factory label Complete Jazz at Massey Hall brought the total count from six tracks to fourteen. For Concord’s 2012 release, the format returns us to the original six tracks, the third being a medley of “All the Things You Are” and “52nd Street Theme”. Evidence of a remastering job is present, though not incredibly so. The jarring chop jobs of the editing are still there and it’s unlikely they’ll ever be corrected (not that anyone cares). It does come with a new liner essay courtesy of music writer Ashley Kahn, telling a story that goes into less poetic detail than Bill Coss’s original sleeve notes which get printed three times in this reissue. Coss danced around Parker’s demise while never using his proper name or his infamous nickname, instead referring to him as “Sparrow” and “Charlie Chan.”
Beyond these details, the music has already been captured, the story has already been told, and the stuff of folklore continues to trickle down to younger and younger music fans who care to trace contemporary jazz to its bebop origins. Unlike many other legendary jazz LPs, The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall is less about the selected tunes and more about the documentation of an event. Not to say that the tunes don’t enjoy a life of their own. On the contrary, the sparring, both verbal and intonated, between Parker and Gillespie on “Salt Peanuts” is singled out as a culmination of their tension and goof. Gillespie’s own “Wee (Allen’s Alley)” definitely gets treated to the Bird twist, bending the notes in a manner reminiscent of melodies from Bird & Diz—not to mention Max Roach’s pulverizing solo which sounds like it brought down a quarter of the house that night (since that’s as big as the crowd got for this show). The CD closes out with two hard bop standards, “Hot House” and “A Night in Tunisia”. Mingus, who by this point was more used to being bossed as a sideman and just learning to become a boss in his own right, strolls through the former after Powell’s intimidating Tatum-like (re: God-like) solo. The latter remains one of the stranger combinations of a catchy melody and dizzying rhythmic style shifts. Although Roach is low in the mix on this one and Diz’s trumpet nearly clips during a sustained note, it’s clear that this was the kind of standard these guys could play in their sleep.
The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall remains the same record it has always been. Sonically, nothing profound is added and nothing is taken away. Historically, Kahn’s liner notes tell the story in a practical way. “The greatest jazz concert ever”? The best judges for this claim are the few in attendance that night since jazz’s very existence thrives on organic elements such as interactivity and eyewitnesses. But if adversity has taught us anything about art it’s that great pains bring great gains. Since 1953, this record has been our gain, our link to an era that many people in my generation seemingly have nothing in common with. Like the great American novel, it continues to make its rounds every few years, placing its mark on the young and opening the doors or reevaluation to the old. Whatever the circumstances, The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall stands on its own and then some.