“Jazz at Massey Hall” Day

May 15, 1953. Chicago. Heavyweight contenders Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott descend on the city, weigh in, and with their retinues retreat to their mutual corners of the Windy City. Pacing, prepping, gathering wits and coiling up in anticipation of their pending bout and rematch to determine if Marciano would hang on to the title that he wrested from Jersey Joe some six months earlier. A clash and crowning that will take place later that evening.

Meanwhile, up in Canada … jazz legend and be-bop co-founder, Charlie “Bird” Parker arrives in Toronto for what he may have considered ‘just another gig’. Bird, a god with many demons, had recently pawned his alto sax (not an irregular occurrence) and showed up for the set unarmed. Details are vague on the matter, but either Parker hustled a sales rep for the UK-manufactured Grafton Sax, or he was hustled by a representative from the Grafton concern. Regardless, Bird secured one of Grafton’s signature white plastic saxes for the gig that evening and, Orpheus that he was, bent this dodgy axe to do his bidding.

Jazz At Massey Hall: The Quintet

While not a standard anniversary year, it is always worth taking the time to remember the culturally significant, iconic and wailing concert “Jazz at Massey Hall: The Quintet” of May 15, 1953. A Gotterdammerung of a jam, helmed by the founders of the movement in jazz known as be-bop. A revolution that introduced new rhythms, stratospheric improvisations and a transitioning of jazz from something usually danced to – think big bands – to something to listen, deeply, to.

On stage that night was Charlie Parker on sax and Dizzy Gillespie, the person Parker lovingly referred to as “the other half of my heartbeat,” on trumpet. With them, the ever rock-solid tower of dignity Max Roach on drums, the gunslinger extraordinaire, the larger-than-life Charlie Mingus on bass and Bud Powell (the inspiration for Thelonious Monk’s jazz standard “In Walked Bud”) on keyboard. The set ran the rack from the novelty of Gillespie’s signature “Salt Peanuts” to the ensemble beauty of “All The Things You Are” with blissful stops in between. Aficionados, dilettantes and record promoters (natch) alike refer to this as “the greatest jazz concert ever.”

The concert was timely in that it was more or less ten years since the art form of be-bop revolutionized music. Soon after Massey Hall Roach, with trumpeter Clifford Brown, invoked a dynamic movement called “hard bop” as the likes of Chet Baker and Parker protege Miles Davis spawned a quieter and more introspective breed of jazz. The Birth of Cool. The Massey Hall concert displayed the crest of a very potent wave. The quintet was a once in a lifetime dream team and the concert marked the last time Parker and Gillespie played, and were recorded, together.

The event was booked by, and intended as a fundraiser for, The Toronto New Jazz Society. Proceeds from the sales of the recording of the concert and the door were to be split between the Society and the musicians. Alas, due to the televised prize fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, attendance at the jam was fair to middling. But, as anyone who has listened to the recording can attest, the Toronto audience was an appreciative and vociferous one.

The Silver Rail

The concert, and events in and around it, have taken on a mythic quality. A few stories involve the place just down the block from Massey Hall that is an uncontested jewel in the crown of Toronto history, The Silver Rail. Formerly at the corner of Yonge and Shuter streets, it was Toronto’s first licensed “cocktail bar”. One relevant tale has Parker, sax secure, popping into the bar for a triple whiskey to get himself together before the concert. Later in the evening, during a break in the program (a break said to have been prolonged to accommodate fans who wished to get a read on the boxing match), he and other musicians re-entered the bar. Dizzy was eager to see or get a report on the fight, since he had money riding on Jersey Joe. He broke ranks and made a bee-line for the bar. Some say Bud Powell, an alcoholic prone to schizophrenia that was triggered by a random, brutal, beating some years earlier, absently drifted over to the grand piano in the centre of the venue and settled in to play, oblivious to the fact that the cover over the keys was down. With a low tolerance for foolishness, Max Roach may have skipped the scene entirely.

Mingus, most likely, stayed on at Massey to tighten negotiations with The Toronto New Jazz Society. Mingus intended to nail the recording rights to the event and planned to release an LP of the concert on his new label, Debut. Mingus, who had never played with any of the other legends on the bill, was the youngest, but hardly greenest, member of the Quintet. He had learned much in the way of performing, wailing and composition from the likes of Parker, Gillespie and Powell, but it seems he also observed and absorbed another lesson from the negative experiences of his elders and became determined to NOT get screwed by the puppet masters of the jazz promotion and recording industry. To wit, early in his career, he started his own label. Period.

As a jazz “true believer,” when I moved to Toronto (circa 1981) a pilgrimage to the Silver Rail was a must. Seeing the stage these giants trod is one thing, but the more intimate venue that, however briefly, housed these rare beasts would surely feel more palpable. I was immediately awed by the space, which brought to mind an empty set for an Astaire/Rogers film, and was inhabited by what I felt to be an overstaffing of Greek bartenders and Polish waitresses. Not sure if it was my good luck or bad luck, but, my first few visits found the place EMPTY. So, you sit on a few stools and dream that “hmmm maybe Dizzy sat at this one … or Parker propped himself up at that one”. As mentioned, a grand piano sat in the middle of the room. A presence, a sphinx and a challenge – like the obelisk in Kubrick’s 2001. This pilgrim had to touch the casing over the keys in honour of Bud. The grand and glorious space was nicely finished with a chorus line of half-moon shaped seating areas along the south windows that faced across Shuter St. to Massey Hall.

In sharing what I thought was the “discovery” of the Silver Rail, locals quickly put me in my place. Seemed that everyone was already in the know and had their own personal history with the venue. The Silver Rail was not only the city’s first cocktail bar, but the swank dining room in the basement was something of a rite of passage for all within a forty mile radius. It was the place that parents and grandparents took their children and grandchildren, all dressed up and dolled up. A big deal indeed. And when those children and grandchildren grew up and came into their own, that’s the place they’d take grandma on Mother’s Day. The true circle of life.

As though history and atmosphere weren’t enough, each patron got a complimentary bowl of peanuts, and they did not skimp on the refills. Repeated visits hipped me to the fact that this was a place frequented by journalists, and yeah, it did have the classic film noir/deco look where one could envision a fedora’d Ray Milland plucking an olive from a toothpick, wolfing down his extra dry martini and dashing out the front door to meet a deadline. I also gleaned that when people reminisced about the place it was inevitable that the phrase “not the Brass Rail!” (a local strip joint) be interposed…e.g. “I took my wife to the Silver Rail..NOT the BRASS RAIL!!!…for our anniversary.” Finally, I learned that, despite the hefty presence of the grand piano, dead centre and slightly elevated, there was never a hint of live music. In some ways, it was just as well. But one had to wonder.

A few years after my maiden voyage to that mecca, I received an urgent, late night, call from a friend. “You’ve got to see this. I’m at the Silver Rail and there’s a guy playing the piano!” I bit. Lo and behold, he not only played, but played well, and he was channeling the ghosts of boppers past. Unique playing with flourishes and references to all the stuff I loved. The stuff that fuelled a passion. Two sets, and untold bowls of peanuts later, I fell into fan mode and just had to talk to this guy. Ken Skinner by name.

Our opening sentences dovetailed and complimented each other while cancelling each other out… “I had to come in here to see where Bird and Dizzy came when they did the concert at…” and he,”I’m getting back into jazz and I just HAD to play at the piano that Bud Powell TRIED to play when he was here for the concert at…” Ken, son of Montreal great Ken Skinner Sr. (I remember that Ken Jr. was very partial to the Horace Silver composition “Song For My Father”), trained for a time by Daisy Sweeney (Oscar Peterson’s sister) but essentially self-taught.

And so, I made repeat visits to listen. There were many nights when I was the only person there. I remember a high school orchestra teacher talking to his group before they were to hit the stage to perform before a more or less empty house. “Any musician can play well to a FULL house … but only great musicians can play their best to an empty one … now go out and be great” … and , for my money, Ken at the Silver (not Brass) Rail was proof of this idea of “great”-ness. My growing friendship with Ken was a meaningful bonus. I once gave him a tape (as was the norm in those days) of Bud Powell’s Cleopatra’s Dream and returned a week later to find that he’d nailed it. I’ve lost his trail, but, Ken (comet that he is) still pops up every now and then either solo or as Ken Skinner and the Jazzmongers. Most recent sightings have had him at NOW lounge, and Gate 403. But that’s years ago now. Hopefully we all have friends who will call us when he surfaces, or maybe we will be those friends that enlighten others.

The Silver Rail has been out of business since 1998 and is now an Urban Planet store. Rocky Marciano won the bout on May 15 with a knock out in round one. Dizzy Gillespie was known to have complained that he did not get paid for the gig in Toronto “for years and years” – so much for Toronto the Good. Yours truly did a half hour film profile on Ken Skinner titled JAZZMONGERS (and some day the writer will figure out how to upload it to the internet).

Charlie Mingus released the Jazz at Massey Hall LP on his Debut label later in 1953. Due to “contractual reasons” Parker’s name could not be used, so, he was credited as “Charlie Chan.” (Chan being the name of Parker’s wife and muse … with that in mind, Parker beat out John Lennon in the taking of his wife’s name by a decade plus.) The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. Finally, righting the wrongs of the delay in payments to the musicians, some compensation came on May 15 2003 when Mayor Mel Lastman declared the day “JAZZ AT MASSEY HALL” DAY.

Happy “Jazz At Massey Hall” Day!

– Ambrose Roche
Photos courtesy Wikipedia commons, City of Toronto archives and John Chuckman

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE in the section The City.
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Loved how this jazz remembrance tied together Toronto’s past and present – I’ll be forever sorry I missed a trip to the Silver (not Brass!) Rail.
Emily Roche, Brooklyn




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