Jazz Explosion (Massey Hall’s Jazz History)

Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall Program, Sept-Nov 2001
By Stewart Hoffman

(See the related article The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever: Jazz at Massey Hall for an in-depth account of the historic 1953 concert featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach.)

Toronto’s fabled jazz clubs of the last century are long gone. The House of Hambourg endured in a number of incarnations until 1963. An office tower now occupies the Queen Street site of the old Town Tavern. And as for the old Colonial Tavern just south of Massey Hall on Yonge, it was bulldozed in 1988. You’ll find a parkette there today, in which a bronze plaque commemorating the famed club rests in the ground like a gravestone.

The only local venue that still serves as a link to Toronto’s early jazz history is Massey Hall. When the all-star quintet of pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade perform their Directions in Music: Miles Davis and John Coltrane 75th Birthday Celebration, they will be extending a tradition of jazz concerts at Massey Hall that stretches back more than half a century.

The greatest names in jazz played at Massey Hall over the years – from Louis Armstrong and his all-star band to Thelonius Monk to Dave Brubeck to Miles Davis himself, who performed his last Toronto concert here in February 1990. A 1952 show called Piano Parade presented Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pete Johnson and trios led by Erroll Garner and Art Tatum. On another evening that year, The Stars of Birdland brought the Count Basie Band, Billy Eckstine and the George Shearing Quintet to town. The Ellington band appeared at Massey Hall a number of times: once, in the ’60s, they even shared the spotlight with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of a Jazz at the Symphony series. The list goes on and on.

But from the late ’40s through the ’50s, the hot ticket in town was the annual visit to Massey Hall of Jazz at the Philharmonic. A wild, loosely organized affair, JATP showcased the greatest stars of the day in what were, for the most part, rip-roaring jam sessions.

“They always ended with a blues that went on forever,” says writer Robert Fulford. “You had the feeling that some of these people might actually be meeting for the first time.”

The spectacular roster of musicians more than made up for what the concerts lacked in ensemble finesse. A typical line up might read like the one that appeared on September 26, 1952, when fans thrilled to the music of Lester Young and Flip Phillips, Hank Jones, Charlie Shavers, Willie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich and the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Barney Kessel. Included in the 1948 edition were Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Red Rodney, Flip Phillips and Dexter Gordon. Often, recalls writer Don Brown, the programmes would feature “cutting sessions”, where “great artists, like trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Charlie Shavers would be reduced to seeing who could play louder and faster.” The crowds ate it up.

Illinois Jacquet was king of the grandstanders. A fine tenor saxophonist, he was also a shameless showman who would honk and squeal and even resort to playing while lying on his back in order to fire up the crowd. Says Fulford: “People like me, snobs who consider themselves aficionados, would know that he was the least important tenor player anywhere near the stage – but he drove the audience into a wild frenzy.”

Certainly Massey Hall’s most fabled jazz event took place on Friday May 15, 1953, the evening the New Jazz Society of Toronto presented a band for the ages consisting of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. After a local pick-up band, led by trumpeter Graham Topping, warmed up the crowd, the quintet took to the stage. They hadn’t even considered their programme until moments before. “The concert was so disorganized,” says Brown, “it was unsettling.” Indeed, when Gillespie and Parker went AWOL for over an hour at intermission, drummer Max Roach – perhaps the only drummer in history whose solos you could walk away humming – held the restless audience spellbound with an extended improvisation.

Most of the evening was recorded by Mingus himself for Debut Records, available as two separate Jazz at Massey Hall CDs entitled The Quintet and The Amazing Bud Powell. The original Quintet LP was marketed as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”. Hyperbole aside, it’s a brilliant – at times electric – evening of music making, and the CDs are remarkable documents of a historic event. (Mark Miller, in his book Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada, 1953 provides a fascinating account of the evening and the events leading up to it.)

Ironically, the concert, which would become the most talked about, written about and – thanks to Mingus’s tape – the most listened to jazz event in Canadian history, was also one of Massey Hall’s most poorly attended. Five of the century’s most influential musicians played to a half-filled house, no match against the evening’s competing attraction – the world heavyweight boxing championship bout between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, televised live from Chicago.

The latest all-star quintet to perform at Massey Hall celebrates two of the most influential musicians jazz has ever produced.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane performed together in Davis’s classic ’50s quintet, as well as on the seminal recording, Kind of Blue. When, in the ’60s, Coltrane struck out on his own, he and Miles led what were arguably the two most important bands on the scene, bands that carried jazz itself in new directions as both musicians, each in his own way, ceaselessly searched for new ways of expression.

And with the quintet of Hancock, Brecker, Hargrove, Patitucci and Blade, five giants of contemporary jazz – all of whom are brilliant leaders of their own ensembles – have banded together to pay homage.

The links of the band members to Davis and Trane are sometimes obvious, sometimes not. Herbie Hancock, of course, has a history with Davis. A legend in his own right, he played piano in Davis’s pivotal ’60s quintet. Brecker, a major influence to a younger generation of tenor players, has often expressed his debt to Coltrane. He switched from clarinet and alto sax to tenor after hearing the great saxophonist, and credits the profound effect Coltrane’s music had on him with his decision to pursue a career in music.

And if the white-hot trumpet of Roy Hargrove is not what immediately comes to mind when you think of Miles Davis, Scott Southard, co-director of International Music Network and the event’s organizer, thinks otherwise. In a concert that sets out to explore the influence of Davis and Trane on contemporary jazz, no one, he says, is a better example of the Miles Davis aesthetic. “Roy can play mainstream jazz and bebop as well as collaborate with D’Angelo and Prince,” Southard says. “In my view, there is no better representative of the all-encompassing way Miles approached things.”

With five days of rehearsal prior to their Monterey Jazz Festival debut on September 20, followed by a 27-concert North American tour, the quintet appearing on the stage of Massey Hall on October 25 is a far cry from an all-star pick-up band. Spending that kind of time together, says Brecker, allows musicians “to develop sort of a radar, a feeling of trust and familiarity that develops into a chemistry.”

Which amounts to potentially explosive chemical research. But not to worry: experiments such as this have been held safely in Shuter Street’s renowned musical laboratory for over 50 years.