Bird, Diz and Max at Town Hall, 1945: Birth of a Revolution

Connie Crothers

HIP-HOP HAD A musical parallel in the 1940s. It was the music now called be-bop, although it wasn’t called be-bop then. It was “the new thing” or “the revolution in music.”

One of the leading revolutionaries was percussionist and composer Max Roach, who later, in the 1980s, recognized the kinship of the music of his generation WITH hip-hop. He demonstrated this insight by performing and recording with the renowned hip-hop innovator, the artist and rapper Fab Five Freddy.

The musical revolution brought in by Roach and his cohorts is documented in a newly-released recording, “Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker,” a record of a concert in Town Hall, New York City, in 1945. This is the first live recording of the groundbreaking quintet, featuring the legendary genius Charlie Parker on alto saxophone; the equally renowned Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet; Roach, a young and already fully-formed master; pianist Al Haig and bassist Curly Russell.

This recording, released last year on the concert’s 60th anniversary, electrified the jazz world. Yet not even the most knowledgeable jazz expert had known of the existence of this recording (made by the concert engineers on pre-tape acetate disks); it was found in 2004 in a large, motley record collector’s exposition.

Issued by Uptown Records, an independent label, it is subtitled, “Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945.” The date is significant because it predates by several months the legendary sessions recorded for the Savoy label that made Charlie Parker explode on the scene as the greatest musician of the moment, ever after to be one of the most influential jazz musicians who ever lived.

The fact that this record is of a live concert gives it a special significance. Jazz musicians have often expressed a preference for live performance recordings, because of the immediacy of the music, the energy and spontaneity. Many writers likened the discovery of this recording to an epochal archeological find.

The quintet had just ascended to its top form. Listening to the record, you can sense that the audience (a packed hall) was not yet very familiar with the musicians. The announcer, ‘Symphony’ Sid Torin, brings on Roach by saying, “I want you to watch Max Roach. He’s really a fine drummer. Really killin’. I know he’s gonna knock you out.”

The concert gets off to a ragged start. Bird (Charlie Parker) is late. In the first selection, “Bebop,” tenor saxophonist Don Byas sits in. When Bird makes his entrance during Dizzy’s solo, the audience cheers. We hear the recording engineer’s adjustments; against odds, he gets a good sound. From then on, it’s a rocket ride to the outer reaches of the stratosphere.

It is impossible to describe the sheer energy, the daring, the impossible virtuosity reached by the three close friends Bird, Dizzy and Max. It must be heard to be believed. The audience, very excited initially, explodes with applause, cheers, laughter, shouts, whistles, sounding like they can hardly contain their exuberant joy.

Joy is the operative word throughout. These young musicians, still in their early to mid-twenties, sound thrilled. Without a doubt, each of these three are creating their finest music. It all came together – ensemble work that was daring, dramatic and perfectly executed; a new level of virtuosity, previously unimaginable; a brand-new innovative style, all expressed with a fire, a level of inspired improvisation that remains beyond belief, even today. The music was new, they were young, they were completely realized masters, and they knew it.

Pianist Al Haig performs admirably and bassist Curley Russell does the impossible, maintaining a strong quarter note pulsation in the blistering tempos. From “Bebop,” we move on to “A Night in Tunisia,” “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts.” The great drummer Sidney Catlett, one of Roach’s favorite drummers, sits in on the next one, “Hot House.” The set ends with “Fifty-Second Street Theme.” The audience is enthralled throughout.

An extraordinary rapport is in evidence here. You can hear these musicians echo each other’s phrases constantly; in one spot in Dizzy’s solo on “A Night in Tunisia,” Dizzy and Max improvise two phrases in perfect unison.

This record is as current as tomorrow. Just like the masters of hip hop, these great artists face down a world of oppression, aimed at keeping them at the very bottom of the society – by going to the very top of their art in the very moment they’re living.

ATC 124, September-October 2006