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Monday, August 02, 2004

To Celebrate Brooklyn to see They Might Be Giants with EGA over the weekend, a nice trip. We left early Friday to have some time in the City, and knocked around in Chinatown and the Village for the morning. EGA reports that she understands about 20% of what she sees and overhears in Chinese-- a respectable percentage, particularly since there seems to be a fair amount of Cantonese being spoken. We had a pleasant late lunch/early dinner (really our favorite time to eat) in Park Slope, and then on to the concert. More anon re TMBG; on our way to the park we stopped at a bookstore to get something to read while we stood on line. I was looking for Art Pepper's "Straight Life", but nobody ever has it in stock. I found instead, "Quintet of the Year", by Geoffrey Haydon about the Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus concert at Massey Hall in Toronto. The show and the recording of it are legendary -- it was the only time that all of these musicians played together, and the book does an excellent job of setting the stage. Along the way it clears up some questions I've always had (What was up with Parker's plastic sax? How come the sound engineering is so spotty? What is the deal with the discography on this document?). Haydon then devotes a separate chapter to the lives of each of the principals following the concert, which is also revealing and worthwhile. A lot of what I know about these people comes from Miles Davis' autobiography, and Ian Carr's Miles bio. Mingus' "Beneath the Underdog", while great in its way, is more atmospheric; Art Taylor's interviews are limited because they are interviews, other sources are likewise less than definitive, and tend to lack the scope that these chapters provide. There are, as a consequence, some fairly substantial gaps in what I know about these artists, particularly Gillespie, Powell and Roach and Haydon fills in quite a bit.

Of the five only Gillespie could be said to have had a happy life, and even he had to contend with the fact that his creative peak ended long before his career did. Powell's story is sadder than I'd guessed-- he was, of course, quite mad, and seems to have been exploited, one way or another, by almost everyone in his life. The most significant exception, Francis Paudras, a Frenchman and his wife, are candidates for sainthood as far as I am concerned. Roach, the figure I knew the least about, is the only one of the five that is still alive, suffered from problems with drink, and, of course had to endure the deaths of several young collaborators, including Clifford Brown and Bud Powell's brother Richie. Hayden is personally aquainted with Roach, and glosses over a lot of his personal life in favor of discussions about Roach as a civil rights leader and educator, both of which are more interesting to me than the fact that he was married three times. Nevertheless, I'd have been interested in more about Abby Lincoln, who is mentioned, of course, but never quoted.

The book suffers somewhat from redundant passages in each of the chapters owing to its format: when paths cross, Haydon seems to feel honor bound to recite the details notwithstanding the fact that he has already related the same anecdote in a previous chapter. In my view this flaw is compensated for by virtue of a very strong emphasis on the subsequent recordings made by each musician-- a very useful thing. He also does a very good job of detailing the impact of the artist's contractual arrangements with their labels, something that is seldom given more than broad brush treatment, and something that I have always felt deserves more comprehensive treatment. I wondered for a long time why the recording is broken up the way it is: the Quintet's set was broken up by a trio perfuming by Powell and the rest of the rhythm section. That portion of the concert is available as a Bud Powell title, but it is a peculiar side which includes a couple of tracks by a different trio, with Billy Taylor on piano, and Powell stuff from different dates. This discloses oddity is accounted for, sort of, by Haydon, who explains that different segments of the concert where released over time as 10 inch LPs by the label-- Debut Records, owned by Mingus and Roach.

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