Of all the Bebop records and compilations released over the years there is still nothing like Live at Massey Hall by The Quintet. To use the old cliché, it was like catching lightning in a jar for one sweet moment on a Friday night in Toronto, 1953 — the only known time this quintet played together. The group in question consists of Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie “Bird” Parker on saxophone, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums; each one arguably the greatest purveyors of their instrument with the exception of Parker, who is without doubt the finest sax player of all time.
The Massey Hall concert dares you to find a flaw; a perfectly chosen setlist, a rapturous audience, and the best lineup possible. It balances the swinging cool of “All the Things You Are” and the effortless-sounding opener “Perdido” with moments of gleeful madness like “Salt Peanuts.” The audience seems aware of how special what they are hearing is and are constantly bursting into applause and cheers throughout every song, a connection that helps the album feel so alive. “Wee (Allen’s House),” is an especially stunning moment as each player’s solo riles the audience up more and more, building anticipation until the end when Roach’s drum solo blows them all away.
The moment was as important as the music. This record was unexpected considering Parker had been recently struggling especially hard with heroin. In addition, he had a major falling out with Gillespie and it didn’t seem likely that they would ever play together again, but they did here. When Parker introduces “Salt Peanuts” as a song by “my worthy constituent Mr. Dizzy Gillespie,” it sounds so casual that it can be easy to miss how powerful that moment is.
There is a sadness associated with the Massey Hall concert that can’t be ignored despite the ecstasy occurring on tape. It’s sad because Parker really does sound completely revitalized during this Friday night. He was 32. He would be dead in less than two years. I look at pictures of this concert — Bird and Dizzy look so happy together, but there’s a problem: Dizzy is three years older than his friend, but Bird looks old enough to be his father. Parker’s death makes it heartbreaking to hear such unbelievable talent stuck in time; so beautiful, yet perpetually doomed.