Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck

On Thursday, May 15 it was standing room only at the most august of Canadian concert venues, Massey Hall. Outside, scalpers were asking upwards of $100 for an upper balcony seat and getting it. Inside the mood was cautiously celebratory. There was a palpable sense of muted anticipation as the crowd of 3,500 wondered if history might be about to repeat itself. That’s about 2,000 more than filled this space precisely 50 years earlier for what has since been trumpeted as the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.” So thin was the audience on that hallowed night in 1953–when Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach assembled for the first and only time–that the promoters couldn’t come up with the paltry fees (ranging from $150 for Mingus and Roach to $500 for Powell) due these giants.

Five decades later, it was time for five musicians–again, assembled for the first time–to pay tribute to their legendary forbears. Gathered on stage, looking nattily subdued in the twilight cool of blue spotlights, were Roy Hargrove, Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes (perhaps not as chronologically young as his confreres but equally energetic), Dave Holland and Kenny Garrett. It was a brief, 85-minute set, dotted with polished salutes–“Hot House,” “A Night in Tunisia,” “Salt Peanuts”–to the ’53 playlist. Their collective mood seemed pensive to the point of beatific (not a word was spoken by any of the five throughout the entire set). But their individual and collective playing proved sensational to the point of shamanistic. Here were five world-class cats each at the top of his game and obviously hugely respectful of the others’ immense talents. From the Astaire-ish polish of the Zen-like Hargrove to the sly self-assurance of the ever-mellow (and more seasoned) Haynes, they were the epitome of laid-back precision. (Surprisingly, the set’s highlight was Roy-less, as Hargrove and Haynes set aside for a piano-bass-sax “April In Paris” that, chilled with loneliness yet charged with gentle hope, proved an exquisite exercise in spare, haunted beauty.)

Still, the question hangs heavy in the air. Did lightning strike twice? Had Hargrove, Hancock and company replicated that 50-year-old magic? Of course not. Nor, surely, was that ever anyone’s intent. It’s like Joni Mitchell’s line from Miles of Aisles: Frustrated by fans’ expectations that her every performance of a song sound the same, she gently chides that nobody ever said to van Gogh, “Hey, man, paint ‘A Starry Night’ again!” Remarkable as the two evenings were, neither reflected the other. The brilliance of Hargrove, Hancock, Haynes, Garrett and Holland mirrored the past only in the abstract, by demonstrating the enormity of the debt the younger virtuosi owe to the old guard. (And how delighted they are to repay it).

A few minutes before 10 p.m., the boys took the most tentative of bows and headed backstage. Seven solid minutes of stomping, shouting, standing ovation couldn’t, seemingly, coax them back for an encore. Then Hancock entered quietly from stage right. Reading from a prepared speech, he delivered a four-page paean to Roach, detailing the richness of his personal and professional triumphs while a silent, wall-sized video tribute played behind him. A woman seated ahead of me whispered, “You don’t suppose…” Indeed. Roach was there. Remarkably frail at age 78, his trip to center stage was slow and painful. Once seated, he shared scattered reminiscences about that long-ago concert (temporarily forgetting Parker’s name, but repeatedly referring to Hancock as “one of the great ones”), then called for a snare. Suddenly the mood shifted from honorific to playful as the master sauntered through 10 sublime minutes of Papa Joe Jones’ “Mr. High Hat.” The spirit of ’53–bold, brazen and joyfully unscripted–filled the hall. Roach tore the place apart while the evening’s five headliners stood in the shadows, listening with bowed reverence. At that moment the two nights blended, as the gifted disciples silently genuflected to the tireless master.

Originally Published