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Jazz Corner: Who Is The Greatest?

From Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie we recall some of the genre’s crème de la crème

Sunil Sampat Jan 30, 2019

American jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Photo: Getty Images

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Mohammed Ali, who was once Cassius Clay, became a legend in his lifetime. He was, of course the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for a long spell of time. Even people outside the boxing world are acquainted of Ali’s fabulous claim, “I am the greatest.” Whether he was or not is an entirely different subject of discussion! His tag and his claim of being the Greatest will live on…

So, in jazz, what are the ‘greatest?’ I mean the greatest jazz musician (Louis Armstrong?), the greatest jazz pianist (Art Tatum according to a lot of jazz musicians), the greatest saxophone player (Charlie Parker, surely), the greatest trumpet player (Miles Davis, Armstrong, Clifford Brown or Dizzy Gillespie). What about the greatest jazz album? Davis’ Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out are possibly the leaders. There is, however one album that has no qualms about making a claim for the greatest jazz concert ever.

This is actually a magnificent album from early 1953; a concert in Toronto’s Massey Hall has all the ingredients to justify the “best ever jazz concert” claim. First, the quintet comprised of unbelievably stellar talent. Parker, who led the group, was the alto saxophonist, Gillespie played trumpet, the amazing pianist Bud Powell played piano, Charles Mingus was on bass and Max Roach played drums. This is as good a quintet as any, ever in jazz. They were all at the peak of their careers as players and the lead up to the concert was exciting, in many ways.

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However, the making of this album and the live concert from which the album was made is quite a hilarious story in itself. It is now a part of jazz history.  Firstly, the five band members undertook a drive of 14 hours to reach Toronto from New York in two cars. On the drive, Parker and Gillespie had a long and acrimonious argument about the timing of the concert and were not talking to each other by the time they reached Toronto. They fought because their concert was to be held at the same time as the World Heavyweight boxing match. Parker had booked the concert date but Gillespie, who was a big fan of boxing and who had bet on the outcome of the bout was not consulted about the date. This tension however seemed to work in favor of the music with Parker and Gillespie trying to outdo each other on stage during the concert.

There were further complications in the progress of the show. The audience was sparse and the recording technicians were missing, both because of the boxing bout. Gillespie, after finishing his solos would leave the stage and dash across the road to a bar where the boxing was televised, to return when it was his turn to play! In the end this concert was recorded by Mingus on his personal recording equipment ”“ which he carried with him whenever he performed and we are the beneficiaries of this. Do check out The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall.

Another recording session where the leading musicians were involved in a heated argument was when, in 1961, Ray Charles and Betty Carter were in a studio to record what is now a famous, celebrated recording. Russ Garcia was the orchestra leader and the two great singers were to sing a set of romantic songs. They were not even on talking terms but once again, as with Parker and Gillespie; the music was the winner because of the tension. The music on this recording reaches genius levels.

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I happened to speak to Carter in Mumbai in 1996 when she performed in this city and asked her about her spat with Charles in that recording studio. “He was perfectly mean to me. I’m still angry about that day,” she said! But it worked for the music, I’m happy to say.

Next time you hear of musicians in conflict, make sure you listen to the music they create together!

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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