Massey Hall

It had been my intention to write an article about the famous Massey Hall gig, known as the Greatest Jazz Concert of all Time, but coming across this wonderful blog by Marc Myers, who managed to discuss this event with Don Brown, an eyewitness, convinced me that I would not be able to better this. So, with the very kind permission of Mr Myers, I reprint this article here.

Jazz at Massey Hall: Eyewitness

By Marc Myers/

As readers of this blog know, JazzWax is read daily by jazz fans worldwide. For a humble writer like me, it's exhilarating to know that without paper, ink, a printing press, postage, a fulfillment department, marketers or postal workers, I can connect with so many of you online in the U.S., Spain, Portugal, France, Costa Rica, Brazil, Japan and other countries and share my interests. It's also a thrill to receive emails from friends I've never met.

Earlier this week, long-time JazzWax reader Don Brown from Canada, sent an email in which he let slip that he had attended Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's famed 1953 Massey Hall concert in Toronto. Though in retrospect the concert didn't quite live up to its musical billing, the event remains noteworthy for several reasons: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were reunited for the last time on stage, Bud Powell returned to performing following hospitalization for mental illness, and Charles Mingus and Max Roach were able to release the concert on their newly formed Debut record label after Verve's Norman Granz passed.

I couldn't resist asking Don to share his recollections and research into the Massey Hall concert for JazzWax readers. Don graciously agreed:

“In the early spring of 1953, members of the Toronto chapter of the New Jazz Society (NJS) met to discuss the possibility of bringing some of the top practitioners of modern jazz to the city for a concert. When I interviewed Dick Wattam, the NJS' president, in 1993, he told me there had been a fair amount of negativity among the NJS' members at the time. They hadn't forgotten they'd lost a bundle the previous summer on a concert they'd produced featuring the Lennie Tristano Quintet with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

“The Tristano concert was a musical success but a financial disaster. The only place the NJS could afford was a small hall on Christie Street that had no air conditioning. Unfortunately the concert took place on one of the hottest days of the year, suppressing turnout. Many of the investors lost every penny they put up and weren't prepared to be bitten twice.

“But Dick Wattam didn't give up that easily. Somehow he managed to convince the others that every jazz lover in Toronto would willingly break down the doors of the concert hall to hear the stellar group of players he had in mind.

“His original choice of participants was Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Lennie Tristano on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Dizzy, Bird and Max agreed, but Pettiford was unavailable, and Tristano declined the offer. Tristano told Wattam that Bud Powell, who had just been released from a mental hospital, would be far more appropriate for the group. Charles Mingus was Wattam's choice to replace Pettiford on bass.

“A date was chosen a few weeks away, and Massey Hall, which held 2,753 people, was booked. Contracts were drawn up and signed, and everything seemed in order. But then Wattam discovered that mounting a concert in Toronto with American musicians meant he'd be required to hire an equivalent number of Canadian musicians. He hadn't bothered to do this a year earlier for the Tristano concert because it was held under the union radar. But at Massey Hall, you had to follow the Canadian union rules.

“Wattam was a man who never did anything by half measures. He hired a 15-piece big band under the nominal leadership of trumpeter Graham Topping. The band was billed as the CBC All Stars, since most of its members did freelance work for Canada's national broadcaster.

“But then things started getting dicey. Wattam managed to convince his fellow NJS members that there was no need to buy any ads to publicize the concert. After all, when the local radio disc jockeys mentioned the upcoming concert on their programs, listeners would get excited and news would quickly spread by word of mouth. But that certainly didn't happen to the extent Wattam had hoped.

“Then, to further complicate matters, the date chosen--May 15, 1953-- happened to be a Friday. On Fridays back in the 1950s, boxing was part of the regular TV schedule, and Friday Night Fights was extremely popular. To make a tough situation worse, a World Heavyweight Championship match in Chicago was scheduled for this particular Friday between champion Jersey Joe Walcott and challenger Rocky Marciano. Naturally, people stayed home in droves. Wattam simply didn't pay attention to much of anything outside the jazz world.

“My buddy and I bought centre-aisle seats in the front row of Massey Hall's balcony, and I still remember looking down on a mostly empty auditorium. The hall was less than a third full. The concert got underway about a half hour late, with “The CBC All Stars" opening the proceedings. The band's program was mostly made up of Woody Herman material, starting with The Goof and I, a piece that Al Cohn had written and arranged for Herman's Second Herd.

“I recall that the set was short, only four or five tunes. Then Dizzy came out from the wings, followed by Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Eventually, a dazed and shaky Bud Powell was led to the piano by his court-appointed guardian and Birdland owner Oscar Goodstein. Finally, Charlie Parker, who my friend and I had not seen before in person, walked out looking like an unmade bed. He was carrying a white plastic alto saxophone. We later learned his Selmer was in the pawnshop.

“One got the impression that nothing had been worked out by the musicians beforehand. After a couple of minutes of animated discussion Diz and Bird opened with Juan Tizol's Perdido, not a piece that might have been expected from two of the founding fathers of bebop. But, as anyone familiar with the recording of the event knows, it was a blistering performance.

“Then the fun started. Dizzy, who was normally a paragon of reliability, seemed more interested in the championship fight than the proceedings at hand. He kept slipping backstage between solos to check the radio to find out if the fight had begun. Each time he came back onstage, Diz gave the audience a running commentary on the preliminary bouts.

“When the championship contest finally started, it was over in the first minute and Marciano was the new champion. Dizzy told the audience about that while holding his head in his hands!

“Back on stage, Diz began making faces at Bud Powell from under the piano lid, trying to coax a reaction. But the pianist ignored him and played on as though his very life depended on it. (It probably did.) Mingus began firing angry looks at the mischievous trumpeter while Max, the most stable member of the group, somehow managed to hold things together.

“I also remember that Mingus didn't seem too comfortable with some of the bop warhorses. Charles was more of an Ellington-influenced player/composer, and I recall that Wee (also known as Allen's Alley) seemed to give him some problems.

“At the intermission Bird disappeared. Bandleader Rob McConnell told me in recent years that he had seen Bird in the bar across the street drinking triple scotches. In fact, McConnell, who was underage at the time, managed to buy Bird one of those drinks with borrowed money. He was shocked when he heard Bird place his order.

“When Bird returned to the stage, his playing in the second half of the concert was surprisingly unaffected. The concert closed with Bird and Diz joining the Canadian all-star big band in a blues. Unfortunately, by this time the tape recorder had been turned off, so there's no record of it.

“Bud Powell, of course, had a trio performance during the concert. That occurred somewhere around the mid-point. I can't recall for certain whether it was just before or following the intermission. He was magnificent. I do remember that immediately following the intermission, Max Roach had a solo feature he called Drum Conversation. Some of the folks in the audience seemed to think they were at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and started shouting 'Go Max, go!'

“I recall that my buddy and I felt the concert was entertaining but hoped to hear Diz and Bird in a more organized setting in the future. This, of course, was not to be. We never saw Charlie Parker again.

“Rumors later emerged about the fighting that took place backstage-- between Bird and Diz, between Bird and the promoters, between Mingus and everybody. I have no idea whether or not that was the case. Onstage, the friendly musical rivalry sparked a melodic firestorm. Out of anarchy and chaos, musical genius prevailed.

“The newspaper reviews the day after the concert ranged from luke warm to pretty negative. Robert Fulford slammed the concert in his Globe and Mail review, and I remember disagreeing with him. While the concert had been pretty chaotic, there had been plenty of good music. But the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever," as it was later described? I don't think so."

--Don Brown

Don Brown reviews CDs and DVDs for The WholeNote, a classical music and jazz magazine. From 1957 to the early 1970s, Don reviewed records and concerts for Coda Magazine and wrote a jazz column for The FM Guide (later The Entertainment Guide). He also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company from 1957 to 1989 in the TV advertising standards department and then in radio advertising sales before becoming a CBC business manager. He lives in Toronto.See the original article here© Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.