In 1953 a group of young Canadian jazz enthusiasts who had recently founded the New Jazz Society of Toronto had an idea; to book four of the five founding fathers of modern jazz for a date at the 2300-seater Massey Hall, Toronto’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall. The musicians who took the stage at Massey Hall in May 1953 were,

  • Charlie Parker (1920-55) alto sax
  • Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) trumpet
  • Bud Powell (1924-66) piano
  • Max Roach (1924- 2007) drums
  • Charles Mingus (1924-79) bass

Only seven years separated the birth dates of the artists on the bandstand that night. The Massey Hall quintet comprised a stellar group of 20th-century musicians, in any context. All master musicians whose impact on modern jazz resonates to the present day. Charlie Parker had barely 2 years left to live, Bud Powell died at 42 and battled profound psychiatric illness  throughout his life. Charles Mingus, who had arrived in New York from L.A. only a couple of years earlier and who went on to launch a distinctive career as a writer and bandleader died relatively early at 56 having contracted ametropic lateral sclerosis in the mid-70’s. Only Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie remained musically active into old age. 

The contemporary jazz life was both creative and competitive. It was also punishing in a whole variety of ways -working conditions, poor pay, untrustworthy club and record label owners, the unremitting nature of life on the road, the transitory nature of friendships and pressures on family life. Most first rank jazz musicians in this era would have routinely been playing six nights a week for a minimum of forty weeks each year. And for very little in terms of pay. The promise of $250 for a one-night stand was enough to get Charlie Parker to Toronto that night.

Three members of this legendary quintet – Bird, Bud and Mingus, suffered from profound mental health issues. Parker and Powell spent significant periods in mental health institutions. Mingus by his own admission, not least in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, had an unstable temperament and a volcanic temper, with many unresolved issues relating to his identity and ethnicity. As he once said “I have a little of everything, wholly nothing, no race, country flag or friend”. All of them shared Mingus’s underdog status; all of them directly experienced the multiple impacts of the racism facing black musicians in that era.

Dizzy avoided the widespread impact of narcotics, had a settled family life and maintained a very professional approach to his musical career throughout his life. Max was a pioneering bandleader, record label owner, and community activist and was one of the earliest of his generation of jazz musicians to frame their music specifically and publicly with the civil rights movement and  the denial of basic human rights to African Americans. Both Max Roach and Charles Mingus saw their music as a vehicle for their political activism. Think of Roach’s Freedom Now Suite or of Mingus’s tune, Fables of Faubus mockingly dedicated to the spectacularly named Orval Faubus the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

The reason why I reference the mental health background of three members of this extraordinary quintet is to exemplify the struggles that jazz musicians of this era had to find a voice, make a living and receive their musical dues. Tragically many scores of jazz musicians of this and the subsequent generation died far too young.

Returning to the Massey Hall gig. The augurs were not good. Ticket sales were poor, the gig clashed with a much-anticipated world title boxing rematch between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott, an African-American boxing champion, was knocked out in the first round much to Dizzy Gillespie’s chagrin.  The quintet had no time for either rehearsal or sound check. Bud Powell arrived so drunk that he had to be helped on to the stage. Bird played on a white plastic sax, having pawned his Selmer sax prior to departure (although Charlie Parker sounded like Charlie Parker whatever instrument he had in his hands). The session ended with a major altercation when the promoters claimed that they hadn’t generated enough cash from the ticket sales to pay the musicians their contracted fees- an unheard occurrence for equivalent stars of the classical music firmament. It is possible that only Charlie Parker was paid that night.

The concert itself was in three parts. An unremarkable and un-recorded opening set by a big band made up local musicians, enlivened by the presence of Max Roach on drums. A short trio session involving Powell, Mingus and Roach and the final, iconic quintet session which concluded proceedings. 

There were no plans to record the event. Fortunately, we have Charles Mingus to thank for setting up a reel-to-reel tape recorder on stage and capturing this astonishing and unique performance for posterity. Charlie Parker’s voice was very rarely recorded so his introduction to Gillespie’s tune Salt Peanuts, referring to Dizzy as “my worthy constituent” is a collectors’ item in itself. Most importantly the music is a record of five world class musicians thrown together for a one-off gig, with no preparation and a quarter full concert auditorium playing a set of anthemic bebop tunes with an astonishing degree of virtuosity.

In putting this article together, I drew heavily on Geoffrey Hayden’ book Quintet of the Year published in 2002. The book opens with brief chapters telling the stories of each of the five participants up to Massey Hall, a description of the gig itself and five concluding chapters describing the lives of each member of the legendary quintet in the years that followed. It also contains some images from the night, the most memorable being a picture of Bird after the gig looking relaxed and happy.

My playlist showcases many of the tunes played by the quintet at Massey Hall that night plus a couple of selections from the earlier trio set. You’ll also find some curated examples of studio quality recordings of Bird, Dizzy. Mingus, Bud and Roach as leaders recorded in the 1950’s. The Parker and Powell recordings are from the mid-to-late 40’s capturing the sheer excitement of their playing as they broke on to the New York scene

Plus, one tune I couldn’t resist adding; namely a unique trio recording involving Duke Ellington, Max and Mingus called Money Jungle. Mingus and Roach were involved in a heated argument as they arrived at the recording studio that spilled over into the recording, as you can hear on this take. Mingus stormed out of the studio and Ellington had to go down to the street to talk him back to the studio to complete the session. Unsurprisingly, plans for a second album were iced.