Jazz at Massey Hall is an almost mythologized album, the sort of recording that’s bound to make it onto a core collection list on the strength of the story alone. An all-star bill of the leading bebop luminaries, the musicians who invented the language of the music: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. It’s a band so strong it’s credited on the cover as being simply “The Quintet”, yet it’s the only recording made with all five of those musicians together. It would be the last time Bird and Dizzy were recorded together. The singular nature of the band is enough to cement its place in jazz history.
Despite its reputation as the greatest jazz show ever, it’s hard to imagine a more ill-fated gig. It shared a timeslot with a much better attended prize fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott resulting in so few ticket holding audience members that no one in the band could be paid. The fight might have also been an unfortunate distraction for the music as well – some have suggested that the band members were rushing across the street in between numbers to check on the score. Charlie Parker had sold his saxophone to feed a drug addiction and performed on a plastic Grafton saxophone obtained last minute. Mingus was unhappy with the recording. The bass in particularly was poorly recorded and very soft, so he overdubbed new bass lines in the studio later in a famously botched piece of post production. You could tell the bass had been recorded in a different room from the rest of the band since it wasn’t properly tracked to the recording and appears to perpetually be a fraction of a beat ahead of the rest of the band, an unmissable mistake since the bass ended up being too loud on the final release. In short: Jazz at Massey Hall perfectly captures the spirit of jazz in all its improvisation and adversity.
Still, it’s worth thinking critically about the final album as a piece of music rather than just a piece of jazz lore. For what is meant to be a genre defining statement of bebop, I’ve always found it a little rough around the edges, a feeling which is undoubtedly heightened by the production issues. Perhaps I’m spoiled by modern production quality, but I find the roughness of the sound a little distracting. It’s not just the clash between the bass and the drums, although that doesn’t help. Other elements bear the marks of poorly made studio edits: the song introductions don’t quite sound right and crowd noise cuts in and out drastically in inexplicable ways.
There is undeniably genius on display and Bird, Diz and Bud deliver a master class in improvisatory invention. Yet, it sometimes feels as if the genius comes through only in batches. Take this fragment of Dizzy Gillespie’s solo on “All the Things You Are”:
There is a lot going on here! Dizzy has an inspired line, taking him smoothly and quickly through the changes. Dizzy could play loud and high sometimes, but he had a powerful sense of dynamics and he doesn’t overplay. The accompaniment from Bud Powell takes it even further. In uncommon style, Powell’s comping here takes the form of even quarter notes (that somehow still swing) and he pushes the harmony hard. It reads almost like a Bach chorale, with its smooth counterpoint of interlacing lines, but in avant-early jazz form with gritty extensions. The overall effect is glorious. Bud promptly celebrates this artistic success by getting lost in the form and turning the beat around when he tries to come back in. It takes him 12 bars to get back into the groove.
Maybe it’s easy to be overly critical of Jazz at Massey Hall. Such a hallowed reputation almost demands a bit of pushback and invites close scrutiny. Despite its flaws, Massey Hall is an incredible document. I don’t know if it’s the greatest bebop album ever made, but there is certainly a lot to love, particularly in the playing of Bird and Dizzy. Charlie Parker could at times sound a little manic, a quality that is endearing to technique obsessed musicians but can be a little off putting to the uninitiated, but on Masey Hall Parker sounds relaxed and inviting. The technical prowess is still there, of course, but there’s a satisfying looseness to it all. (Parker soloing on “Perdido”)
Perhaps the greatest value of Jazz at Massey Hall, however, is the story, the singular coming together of musicians who face less than fortuitous circumstances and yet produce a staggering and unique work as if it were nothing. Generations of musicians have listened to the album and realized that Charlie Parker on his worst day and with a plastic saxophone could outplay them at their best. I don’t know if Massey Hall is the best or my favorite album of Bird or Dizzy’s, but it’s hard to imagine a collection being truly complete without it.