Bebop's hidden history revealed: New disc like winning the lottery without a ticket
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 August 2005)

Sixty summers ago, during a jazz concert at Town Hall in New York, someone whose identity still remains unknown was furtively making records on a disc-cutting machine in a booth. Because he told no one what he was doing, no one ever wondered where the records went. They didn't turn up until the first years of this century, when they began appearing in a Connecticut an-tique shop. This summer, their sound digitally doctored, those bootleg discs have become an astonishing 40-minute CD, Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Records).

For those who love bop, this is like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. Suddenly we possess a fragment of the past that no one knew existed. In a burst of hyperbole The New York Times called this find "the Rosetta Stone of bebop," which may be a bit of a stretch. Whatever you call it, a happy accident of musical archaeology has now given that Gillespie-Parker concert a permanent place in jazz history.

We now know that it started rather badly. The audience had to wait an unconscionable time for the performance to begin. And the problem, as usual, was Parker. No one could find him. That was no surprise. Wherever Parker went, chaos followed. He was as reliable as a cloud. It is said that one night he strode purposefully out of a New York bar at precisely 8 p.m., the time at which he was expected onstage at a concert in Philadelphia.

Gillespie, by now accustomed if not reconciled to the behaviour of his great colleague and collaborator, decided they would have to start without him. This would mean no alto saxophone voice mingling with Gillespie's trumpet. The concert would consist of trumpet solos with a rhythm section, not what had been promised. But Don Byas, an admirable tenor saxophone player, was in the house. Gillespie asked him to sit in, pending Parker's arrival.

This is where the CD begins, with an introduction by the MC, the odious Sidney Torin, who ran a jazz record show in New York as Symphony Sid. (Lester Young named a tune for him, Jumping with Symphony Sid.) As usual, old Sid gives a painful imitation of a hipster. He calls the Town Hall audience "all you cats and chicks" and giggles nervously at his own jokes. He refers to the musicians as "the boys." (He also mispronounces Dizzy's last name as "Jillespie.") When he announces that the music is about to begin he adds, "I don't know whether Charlie has come in yet so we've got Don Byas standing by."

The first number, Bebop, begins with Gillespie and Byas together, Max Roach on drums, Al Haig on piano, Curley Russell on bass. Byas solos with easy grace and confidence. Gillespie builds his own solo to a blazing climax, as if compensating for Parker's absence.

But as he plays we hear a buzz in the audience. A few people clap. Bird has arrived! He takes his place on the stage and Byas withdraws. As Gillespie finishes, Parker (who never needed to warm up) begins pouring out a cascade of sound.

Suddenly, all is right with the world.

The great bop performances are staged like dramas, with the tension, the pressure and the pacing of expertly structured plays. The musicians remain focused, for every second, on the forward movement of the piece. They are five men in deep communion with each other, each an individualist, each proud beyond measure of their collective accomplishment. Entrances and exits of soloists are calculated to the nanosecond. The dialogue passages (for example, Roach's drums conversing with Gillespie's trumpet) are as complex as a page of Tennessee Williams.

On this night they play Groovin' High, Hot House, A Night in Tunisia and Salt Peanuts, all of which will soon become beloved jazz anthems. Each of them goes more than twice the three-minute length of the 78rpm records that musicians are accustomed to making; solos expand to a generous two minutes. As they elaborate on familiar themes, we understand how these players sounded when they had room to breathe. Parker uses his time well. Sometimes he plays so fast that he seems on the point of lapping himself, so that for a second we imagine we hear two saxophones playing at once.

Gillespie was 27 years old that summer, Parker 24. We feel the excitement they generated when they could still astonish each other. This CD brings us closer than any other I know to the beginnings of bebop. Everyone who cherishes that period will be grateful to Dr. Robert Sunenblick, an internist who practises in both Montreal and Plattsburgh, N.Y., and as a serious hobby spends his time reviving great but forgotten music on his independent label.

Of course a Canadian, and in particular a Torontonian, will wonder how this 1945 event compares with Jazz at Massey Hall, also starring Gillespie and Parker, recorded on May 15, 1953. Mark Miller of The Globe and Mail once noted that the global jazz world knows Toronto for only two things: Oscar Peterson lives there and Jazz at Massey Hall happened there. It was called "the greatest jazz concert in history" by an over-enthusiastic blurb-writer at a record company. The name stuck.

Will 1945 dislodge, from the canon of jazz performances, the miracle of 1953? Could Massey Hall lose its iconic status? There are serious civic issues here. Slightly serious.

Some differences are obvious. Al Haig was a terrific pianist and part of the bop scene, but his 1945 playing never equals the furious, unforgettable performance of Bud Powell in 1953. Max Roach (who in the 1945 concert gave up his chair for a brief appearance by the great Sidney Catlett) doesn't have the opportunity to display the ingenuity and the overflowing talent he demonstrated in 1953.

As for the two great innovators, Parker seems more himself in 1945, Gillespie about the same (that is, sensationally brilliant) on both occasions. All I know for sure was that last week, when I played the 1945 record for the first time, I felt bereft as it ended -- and then elated by the knowledge that I could play it over again and again, whenever I chose, because the most wonderful piece of luck had dropped into my lap.

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