Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Charlie Chan Played Toronto With a Piece of Plastic

It's 1953. Bebop is in full. . . well. . . bebop. Diz and Bird are kicking it hard. A group of Jazz fans in Toronto decide to sponsor a concert at Massey Hall that ended up being Jazz legend. According to the story (as I heard it--and there are many versions) Charlie Parker was a pretty notorious, unreliable junkie at the time. Habit had got the best of him. Started to get a rep for showing up all junked up to the gig. So to make sure he didn't show up incapacitated, the band takes his money and just gives him a ticket for travel. This seems Urban Legendish--but I am just relating the story as I have heard it a million times. The idea was that if they leave him with no dough, he can't fix. No cash, no stash. As the legend goes, Bird shows up in Toronto as planned, only it is clear that he has fixed. And then the horrible realization hits home that Parker has in fact hocked his horn to fix before leaving NY.

Everyone is in scramble mode looking for a horn. It's after hours and one of the guys sponsoring the show has a music store and is a rep for these new saxophones made of plastic. Parker ends up playing what many refer to as the greatest jazz concert of all time on a plastic saxophone. In 1994, Christie's held an auction where they sold the actual legendary plastic saxophone that Bird played on that night(it eventually sold for over $144,000.00). They hired another legendary player to demonstrate its sound. Here is Pete King playing the Grafton Plastic Sax. He actually plays one of the tunes that Parker and his cohorts played that night, "Wee".

The lineup for the Massey Hall Concert was as follows:

Parker--Plastic alto
Bud Powell--Piano
Charles Mingus--Bass
Max Roach--Drums

Now that is a lineup. The event was recorded and released under Roach and Mingus's co-owned Debut label. Since Parker was contractually obligated to another label at the time, he had to be listed under a pseudonym. They chose "Charlie Chan" possibly because of Louis Armstrong's famous critique of Bebop where he said it sounded to him like Chinese music.

Now to Bud Powell. What a tragic story there! In 1945, the cops just beat the living crap out of him, and from that point on, his mental state was questionable. In '47, he went to the mental institution and stayed for more than a year. The doctors repeatedly zapped his brain with electroconvulsive shock which lead to severe memory loss. Here's Bud:

From then he was erratic (Hell, who wouldn't be?). He was an alcoholic, and according to many of his colleagues, it just took a little bit of the sauce to make him very aggressive. I often wonder how much of his trouble was a mental disorder, and how much was just a rational response of a genius level artist to the indignities of Jim Crow. In '51, he was busted on a Marijuana charge which lead to another prolonged stay in the mental hospital--almost two years. So at the Time of Massey Hall, he was fresh out of the mental hospital but had been released to the owner of the Birdland club and was being basically held prisoner in an apartment! It was not until a few months later that his playing started to really suffer from the effects of taking the drug Largactil for his supposed schizophrenia. Massey Hall was a good show for Bud; he is sharp and nimble and perhaps full of energy from having just been released (sort of). Beginning around '54 he started to really slip. The composing was still good--the performing, not so good.

Two years later in '55 there was a partial reunion of this legendary lineup at a New York club. Only Diz was absent. Bud at one point could not play and became totally incoherent having to be lead from the stage. Parker gets in the mic and starts saying Bud Powell...Bud Powell...over and over like he is paging the incapacitated pianist. He takes it WAY too far and just keeps repeating it. Mingus is so pissed, he gets in another mic and says "Do not associate me with this; this is not jazz."

Charlie Parker was dead from drug abuse within a week.

But back to Massey Hall. And to Mingus. Mingus was always a tough looking dude to me:

Mingus had a strange early career that left him with a sizeable chip on his shoulder. There was a tradition in Jazz where many of the top cats adopted titles of nobility. King Creole, King Louis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, etc. Early on and still visible on some labels you can see Mingus referred to as Baron Mingus. Anyway, Mingus was of mixed race. He had some serious run ins with racism early in his career that left him bitter. He had played with Louis in the 40's and then with Hampton. He even got some of his own compositions played. And in certain lineups, Hamp's band was interracial. Mingus also had worked in Ellington's band which was also interracial. He was involved in a famous incident in that band involving racial conflict. According to other members of the band, Mingus had a conflict with Juan Tizol, Duke's valve trombonist. Tizol was the composer of Caravan and Perdido--two of Duke's biggest hits. Anyway the story goes like this. Tizol shows Mingus a piece of written music and asks him play it. Mingus plays it but not exactly as written--he spins it or whatever. So Tizol announces to some of his white bandmates, "See, I told you these niggers can't read."

Here is Juan Tizol:

Mingus becomes so angry that he shoves Juan Tizol from the wings, and Juan Tizol goes sprawling all the way across the stage into the other wings! Duke fired Mingus. Supposedly he is the only musician that Duke ever sacked (although some say Soprano sax player, Sidney Bechet was also canned once).

Then in the very early part of the 50's, Mingus hooks up with legendary vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitar viruoso Tal Farlow to form the Red Norvo Trio. They are brilliant and inventive and critically acclaimed. The have trouble gigging because Mingus is black. Incidentally, Red Norvo was really something to see. Watch him go crazy with Benny on "The World Waiting for the Sunrise" only a decade or so after his period with Mingus.So here we are in 1953 and Mingus is playing with the biggest names in Bebop and the concert of the century. When he goes back and listens to the recording, his bass part is barely audible. He ended up overdubbing his bass part for the recording that ended up on the record.

So in 1953, a legendary lineup takes the stage. Many of them battling their personal demons, whether they be race, mental illness, or junk. And they channel all of it into jazz magic.

Here is a recording from that historic night in 1953. It is Dizzy's classic composition "A Night in Tunisia".

Here is another Bebop classic from that same night, "Salt Peanuts":Dig.


Fosco Gamgee Whitfurrows said...

Very nice, Chap. Entertaining and informative read. I enjoyed this.

Chap said...

Thanks Fosco.