Near the end of the evening at the 50th anniversary of the greatest jazz concert ever at Massey Hall, the audience heard a man tell them the spirit of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus were in the room this night. That man was Max Roach. Fifty years to the day from one of the most famous concerts in jazz history, the drummer of that session, which featured the best of the best, the sole surviving musician from that 1953 concert, was honored.
In 1953, enthusiastic members of the New Toronto Jazz Society drove to New York to invite their favourite player on each instrument in a quintet to a gig at Massey Hall in Toronto. To their amazement each invitee showed up. There were a few down moments to the evening. Hardly a full house came out to see what today we might consider a dream team of Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass), Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Max Roach (drums), and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet). And at the end of the night, each player was shorted on their pay.
This year's contingent of hand picked musicians, led by Herbie Hancock, put together a performance that amazed and dazzled the full house in attendance. Driving into the city on this night I managed to bag the last two tickets, behind the stage amps for $100 per. Sitting by the stage door, a man who looked a lot like a mature Elvis Costello, turned out to be one of Max Roach's handlers. He nervously moved about the room, as the crowd waited to the last song of the set for the man of the evening to emerge, the only surviving member of that historic gig, Max Roach.
"Charlie Parker and Mingus are here tonight. Things haven't changed. This is a great building for American music," he said, as he was led across the stage before the band's encore. As the crowd roared to their feet, Herbie Hancock humbly walked out with the man who everyone had wondered would actually make an appearance this evening.
And it was indeed another great evening of jazz, perhaps rivaling that first concert. The evening began appropriately enough with the Phil Nimmons Massey Hall All Stars, featuring a young drummer who looked like he could have been wearing his high school uniform, Ernesto Cervini, who played marvelously. His drums were featured up front. This was something Roach had pioneered. To bring the drums from a supporting to a starring role, had been one of his goals.
But who could have expected that with a lineup including Mr. Hancock, as band leader, Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Kenny Garrett on alto sax, and the remarkable Dave Holland on bass, that the evening's performance would star another drummer, the 77 year old Roy Haynes.
Haynes played this night like a lion that can run through the woods without bending a piece of grass in search of its prey, our ears.
The rhythm section had indeed come to play. Holland was dressed in a nice blue T-shirt, and Haynes, with his Michael Jordan hair cut and short rugged stature, wore a funky white shirt with stylish dark embroidery, open to a Gap-looking black t-shirt. Holland may have drawn first blood with his quiet and pointed solos, but Haynes was hitting the bottoms of the cymbals on one song, taking us to Heaven and back on another, perpetually stirring the pot to keep things interesting. Keeping everything laconic and pure, but oh so soulful, he didn't steal the show, for this was a band that had tremendous respect for each other's talents, but he was certainly a force, with the energy of someone half his age.
Roy Hargrove's dreadlocks belied a funk attitude that threatened to surface, but only showed up in the stalwart fashion he would saunter off the stage after each solo, to great applause. His renditions on "Night in Tunisia" were some of the highlights for many in the crowd.
Kenny Garrett, who has played, like everyone on the stage, with all the greats, was as usual impeccable, and his jiving with Haynes caused the crowd to roar at one point. On the ballads he invoked the voice of a singer, and created a mood, that made one feel like they were watching a movie in black and white. Yes the world has morals, and yes there is a right and a wrong, and thank God, at Massey Hall, there is song.
There was plenty of playing off each other shenanigans going on, that couldn't have been rehearsed, and there was some heavy almost acid jazz moments, time for everyone to show their stuff. Hancock was subdued and a gentleman, always seeking the middle ground. These geniuses of the muse, who all come from different jazz backgrounds and styles, complemented each other like they had been playing in each other's living room for years. And Massey Hall with it's red carpets, heavy red curtains at the back of the stage, tall pillars with sixteen coats of paint, comfy chairs that fold in on themselves when you move too far forward, and canvas fire hose folded neatly at the side of the stage, added to the laid back manner of the evening.
With Max Roach on the stage talking about "The young greats," among us this evening, it surely made us feel happy that we had gotten out of our living rooms, to enter a room where music has been front and center for so many years.
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