[1 September 2005]
Sixty years is a long time for a high quality recording of two geniuses in concert—at the height of their powers—to sit in someone’s basement.
But that is exactly what happened. On June 22, 1945, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, just weeks after making a series of the most important studio recordings in jazz history, were invited to play a Friday night concert at New York’s Town Hall. Hosted by radio personality Symphony Sid (who had been championing the new music on his show) and featuring a variety of other performers, the concert was a landmark only because of Bird and Diz.
For bebop aficionados, the discovery of this recording is a Dead Sea Scrolls kind of event. No other live recording of the architects of bop playing together in their own element exists from this era. With their landmark sides still fresh wax, Bird and Diz got to escape the confines of the 78 to stretch out on their classic bop anthems—“Bebop”, “A Night in Tunisia”, “Groovin’ High”, “Salt Peanuts”, and “Hot House”. And that’s really the essence of this disc’s particular thrill: hearing Parker, Gillespie, and drummer Max Roach play freely—soloing as long as they choose—before a crowd that was just figuring out what magic they had to convey.
As the disc starts, you hear the voice of Symphony Sid, introducing the band—billed as Gillespie’s quintet (and playing mostly Dizzy’s tunes) or possibly his sextet, as tenor player Don Byas is on hand because Bird had not yet shown up for the gig. Sid was promoting the new music, and he lays it out with hip banter and an insider’s knowing way. Sixty years later, it’s hard to remember that this was vanguard stuff—music that no less an authority than Louis Armstrong would denounce as “Chinese music” with no place in the history of jazz. But as soon as the music kicks in, the crackle of revolution is pretty much palpable. These guys are playing like their lives depend on it—jiggling mad solos that may not sound “Chinese” but certainly do sound alien, as in strange and out-of-this-world and very possibly inspired by a meteor. I mean no offense to the formidable Don Byas, but his solo on the opener, “Bebop”, is laconic and elegant—so that when Bird just enters the room, the crowd starts to buzz. When Parker finally hits the stage and puts air through his alto, it’s as if Prometheus has just hopped on stage, bent on exhibiting his powers. At that moment, the sparks begin to fly at supersonic speeds.
Once Parker has joined the band, Byas is done for the night. There was hardly room on stage for a rhythm section once Dizzy and Bird joined forces, and this concert is probably the best hearable evidence of their musical intimacy. Not only do they finish each other’s phrases at the junctures of their solos, but they seem to inspire each other to ever-more insane improvisational risk-taking. Bird’s hypersonic flurries push Dizzy to sound more saxophonic—playing stuttering runs that change direction in the middle of thirty-second note rips. Dizzy sets the example for Parker—daring him to harmonic adventure, playing odd interval jumps, and suggesting to him the hard, staccato attack of a true brass instrument. And while the partnership was often sublime on the long-available studio recordings of the ‘40s, this concert catches them as eager and ambitious young men before an audience of potential converts. They preach at full volume.
Though the concert setting allows for longer solos (with 78 RPM records maxing out at three minutes or so), the band does not overextend its playing. How could it? Bird and Diz start each solo at close to fever pitch as it is, using more choruses simply to take our breath away rather than to gradually construct a jazz novel. This recording confirms that, even in the longer form, these guys were burners. You do notice a difference in the writing however, as the longer form allows for more compositional detail—written introductions, interludes, detailed passages that remind you that all these guys were coming out of the big bands and played sympathetic section parts as well as gripping solos.
On the first three tunes, Bird and Diz are joined by another bop architect: Max Roach. Max plays as ever—light and fast and precise as a needle. He stitches the band together with snare and ride, coloring mainly with a kick drum that wanders the bar lines like a syncopated acrobat. When Big Sid Catlett joins the group for “Salt Peanuts” and “Hot House”, the group is swung harder but more bombastically. The crowd eats up Sid’s solo, but the balance in the band is off some. Bop was fleet rather than purely driving, and it’s Max who allows the primary soloists to play so much mad stuff—goading them to squeeze quintuplets into half-measures or to rush ahead of the beat with abandon.
Anchoring things that night was Curly Russell on bass and Al Haig on piano. Mr. Haig sounds like he’s being schooled on the spot. He plays well in the ensemble, and he comps with authority and harmonic interest throughout, but his solos are 40 watts compared to the horn players’ 200. Mr. Haig plainly understood the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of bop, but his solos are not as adventurous as the leaders’. He apes Parker’s dynamic tumble of improvisation, but nothing he plays here sounds as surprising or as ingenious as what the leaders are doing. But that he’s in the game at all as early as 1945 is high praise. No Bud Powell was he, but how much excitement can one band create anyhow?
If you’re in a critical mood, you should know that the horns are largely off-mic on the first track, and Sid Torin’s introductions—while undoubtedly part of the history of the event—are ultimately corny and intrusive. While closer to the source than the famous Massey Hall concert (Bird, Diz, Bud, Mingus and Max), this Town Hall gig is ultimately less interesting and less listenable than that classic, made when all the principals were both wiser as players and more nuanced in approach. This concert is a sprint, all-out, while a thrilling one.
On “A Night in Tunisia”, Charlie Parker plays the famous break that leads into the solos. Diabolical in execution and design, this five-second snatch of improvisation seems to sum up most everything that jazz does well. Jazz fans will have heard many other “Tunisia” breaks played by Bird, but it remains glorious to have yet another—one more brick in the tower of genius laid by these great musicians. In the end, this concert is less singular and unusual than it is typical: a night of flaming bop from the guys who invented it. That it was recorded just months after the fresh invention simply serves to invite the fanatic into the moment itself.
It’s a great place to be.