Monday, May 15, 2023

70-year-old Salt Peanuts 

It was 70 years ago today.

In 1953 the US and Soviets announce they have the Hydrogen bomb marking the beginning of the Cold War. Eisenhower becomes president of the United States. Khruschev becomes head of the USSR. Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Fisher are the pop stars of the day. Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott are dueling heavyweights. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascend Mt. Everest. The first colour television set would go on sale and 70 years ago today, one of the greatest Jazz concerts of all time happened at Massey Hall in Toronto. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus played to a small crowd due to logistical mistakes and an underwhelming, amateur promotion. The show was undersold and mostly unknown until Mingus later released the recordings as Jazz at Massey Hall.

Billed by jazz critics as "the greatest jazz concert ever," the May 15th, 1953 concert almost never happened. The quintet of Jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus had never rehearsed or even had a sound check when they made history that night. There are so many stories about this concert. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker arrived later than everyone else as Parker was late arriving at LaGuardia in New York, and Mingus' wife, who was an unexpected guest, bumped Gillespie from the flight to Toronto because Mingus insisted she accompany them. That night, Charlie Parker played on a plastic Grafton Alto sax as he had probably hawked his own to support his drug habit. Bud Powell on piano appeared stone cold drunk or in some kind a trance. Did it matter? No one played Bebop piano better. Max Roach fearlessly set the pace and always brought out the best in Parker. Who knew Charles Mingus would later dub over his own bass parts? Dizzy seemed more concerned about the outcome of the Marciano/Walcott title bout than the gig as he ran to a tavern across the street during intermission to check in on the fight.

The original album cover for Jazz at Massey Hall, designed by Canadian artist Arnaud Maggs, 1953. © Estate of Arnaud Maggs. Courtesy Susan Hobbs Gallery.

Despite the more popular notion that the early 50's represented a benign American polyannaism, it was more truly a period of creative blossoming and experimentation, especially in areas such as architecture, industrial & graphic design, illustration, painting, photography, poetry, film and music, especially Jazz.

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