PART 1 – Introduction
“There is a gesture he has, a motion, that always reminds me of a great batter leaning into a hit. He has a way of throwing one foot forward, putting his head down a bit as he silently runs the valves, and then the cheeks bloom out in a way that has mystified his dentist for years, and he hits into the solo. When that foot goes forward like that, you know that John Birks Gillespie is no longer clowning. Stand back.”
Gene Lees, Waiting for Dizzy
Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Scroll down a bit on the columnar side of the JazzProfiles site, and this colorized version of William Gottlieb’s famous photograph of Dizzy Gillespie appears with the following quotation from Diz inscribed below it:
“You can’t steal a gift. If you can hear it, you can have it."
And in an act of continuing generosity,
Dave Usher gave JazzProfiles - and its readers - a gift by granting the editorial staff permission to transcribe and post the interviews with Dizzy and members of the band that made the 1956 South American tour and which are included on the two CDs that comprise Volume Three of the set.
And the gifts continued to abound when the noted Jazz writer,
Ira Gitler allowed, JazzProfiles copyright permission to reproduce his insert notes to Volume One of the Dizzy in South America series in order to provide a context for Dave Usher's interviews with Dizzy and the band members that make up Part 2 of this feature.
Although the CDs themselves have been discontinued by
Dave’s Consolidated Artists Productions, all three volumes are available as Mp3 downloads at Amazon.com.
© -The following insert notes to Volume 1 are reprinted with the permission of
Ira Gitler; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
© -The subsequent interviews which comprised Part 2 of this feature are transcribed and reprinted with the permission of
Dave Usher; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"From the September 5, 1956, issue of Down Beat: “The John (Dizzy) Gillespie band, making its second trip this year under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, began its Latin American swing July 25 in Quito, Ecuador. The band played
(July 26-27); Guayaquil, Ecuador (July 28-August 4); Buenos Aires, Argentina (August 5); Montevideo, Uruguay (August 6-12) and Rio de Janeiro (August 13-17), Sao Paulo ." Brazil
"At press time, it appeared possible that Dizzy and the band might play
, Chile , Peru , and Colombia on the way back." Venezuela
While this projected back-end of the trip did not happen, what did take place was momentous. At this point in his career, Gillespie, at 46, was a young elder statesman of jazz and a musical ambassador for his country. As co-founder of the modern jazz movement and a prime mover in bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms and themes to jazz, he was one of the most respected and recognizable musicians in the world. Earlier in 1956, he had successfully toured the Middle and
Near East for the U.S. State Department, leading a big band for the first time since 1950 (other than in isolated engagements).
No one would ever accuse Gillespie of being a slouch as a small-group leader, but he was truly in his element when fronting a big band. That is the background from which he came, including the orchestras of Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway, Edgar Hayes, Lucky Millinder, Charlie Barnet, Les Hite, Earl Hines, Boyd Raeburn, and Billy Eckstine, to name a few. The first big band of his own was the one that made the ill-fated southern
tour with Hepsations of 1945. The second attempt at a big band was made in the spring of 1946, after Diz had returned (without Charlie Parker) from a month in U.S. , and once again put down roots on California 52nd Street.
After opening with a sextet at the Spotlite in late February, expanding to an orchestra was discussed. By April it became a reality - one of the most exciting, explosive big bands of all time, caught up in the realization that it was taking part in something that was "happening," a musical benchmark. You didn't have to consciously think, 'This is historic." You felt it.
By the summer of 1947, the band, now at the Downbeat club, a few doors away from the Spotlite, had lost some of its rough edges but none of its fire, and had the luxury of an ever-expanding book. A signing by RCA Victor toward the end of August proved to be a beneficial relationship for both the band and the recording company, until it ended in 1949. Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra became a major force in jazz. The next contract, with Capitol Records, proved to be not as sanguine. The material recorded was not up to Gillespian standards. (The last recording they made with Capitol — under pressure - was a novelty tune titled "You Stole My Wife, You Horse Thief.") By 1950, the hand business was in serious decline. It was a year in which the Count Basie band broke up, as did Gillespie’s. Basie went to a small group before reorganizing his orchestra in 1951. Dizzy wasn't to get a big band underneath him again until 1956.
Like Basie, Diz went to a sextet format.
Dave Usher, a young jazz fan from working in his fathers reclaimed-oil business. Usher first met Gillespie in Detroit , at the Paradise Theater. During Usher’s undergraduate days in the east, he met Gillespie again, on Detroit 52nd Street, in 1946. When, later that year, the trumpeter played in , they renewed their acquaintance, which strengthened into a lifelong friendship. With money he had saved from driving a truck for his father, Detroit Dave formed Dee Gee Records with Dizzy in 1951. There were artistic successes and commercial hit singles, such as "Oo-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be" and "School Days," but distribution and other woes forced them to lease the masters to . Usher explains: "We didn't want to lose the company, but it was Savoy , and I didn't want to declare bankruptcy. Dizzy signed with Norman Granz, and I got married and went back to work for my dad." Tap City
Gillespie led combos and also toured as a member of Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, recording for
’s labels in a variety of contexts. In 1956, Dizzy was asked by the U.S. State Department to organize a big band for a tour of the Near and Middle East. Quincy Jones, who had assembled several orchestras for recording dates, etc. for Diz in 1954 and 1955, was given the assignment to put together another one. As a result of the successful Norman Middle East trip, Gillespie was asked by the State Department to tour under its auspices once more, this time in South America, with Jones again as musical director. Gillespie asked Usher to join the traveling troupe. Dave explains: "Dizzy informed me that he was going to buy a portable tape machine. It was an Ampex 600 fitted into Samsonite luggage. He said, 'Why don't you come along and record?’ From being a producer, I became an engineer. We felt it was a very exciting opportunity, but for some reason Norman Granz wasn't interested."
Regarding his task at hand, Usher said, 'The good thing was that because we were on a State Department tour, we were always met by a representative from either the consulate or the embassy, and they would help us with the technical aspects. We had to convert from 60 cycles to 50, and we could always rely on the people from the State Department to call ahead for a transformer, which made my job much easier. Whenever we had a problem, they were there to help us and did."
'The tape ran at 7-1/2 ips. Professional taping at that time was always done at 15 ips (symphonies at 30). Only the 'public' used 7-1/2. Well, we disproved that theory, because this stuff is still unbelievably good today, more than 42 years later. We used 3M 111 magnetic tape. It was great equipment for its time. The pre-amp was a Fisher. The Ampex was a monaural tape machine, and a guy in
had shown me how to adapt it so that I could have two Electrovoice mics — a solo mic plus an overall mic — that I put on a stand which went up eight feet max. Most times we didn't bother trying to get the piano because we never had a decent one. New York
"It was a very exciting tour. The band, after the
Middle East tour, was very well-seasoned, and the thing that really got me is that generally, when you're on the road, you're going to have arguments; some guys aren't happy with the other guys. We had nothing like that. There were no animosities, no gripes; nobody was bitching. It was a happy tour. We had times when things were bad, like on the boat from to Buenos Aires , when there was no heat. I mean it was winter! Everyone was bundled up, but there was never any complaining. Montevideo
'This was in 1956, only two years after the Supreme Court had rejected the principle of separate but equal to end segregation in schools. In a sense we were an experiment, this integrated orchestra. There were four white musicians — Phil Woods, Frank Rehak, Rod Levitt, and Marty Flax. Melba Liston, the only woman, and the rest of the band were black. The State Department had sponsored this tour to show that the
was promoting integration, but an incident involving a hotel in U.S. almost backfired in the State Department's face. Buenos Aires
"We were coming from
after playing in Chile , and we had lost the use of two of our four engines coming over the Ecuador Andes. We made it, but we were really late. People were waiting for us at the Teatro Casino. Whenever we arrived somewhere, we had to first check into a hotel in order to get ID cards in exchange for our passports. So we just dumped our gear at the hotel and immediately went to the theater. People kept saying to me 'What about the hotel? What about the hotel?' I didn't understand what they were talking about. I didn't even think about the fact that we weren't staying at the , where we had made reservations. It turned out that the Savoy Hotel had refused our admittance because there were blacks in the band. This was particularly ironic because the Savoy was owned by Americans. It was a huge story in Savoy South America, in all the headlines.
"Peter Hahn, a stringer for CBS news, took me to La Prensa, the leading newspaper in
. This was right after Peron had fallen, and there were shell holes in the building. Hahn showed me that he was filing the Buenos Aires story to the press services in the States. It was supposed to come back down in Spanish. He said, 'Watch. It'll never come back.' And it never did. The story never appeared in the Savoy It was squelched. The incident wasn't the State Department's fault, but the Communists had a field day. U.S.
“The next morning, while Dizzy was still sleeping, Peter came and dragged me out of bed. He said we had to get to the 'Pink House,' where the president of
wanted to make an official apology. I accepted the apology on behalf of the band (the hotel was fined $2,500)." Argentina
None of this deterred the band from its appointed sounds. Gillespie was a great ambassador. Usher notes, "I admired Dizzy for many reasons, but one that really hit home to me was when we were in
. We went to be interviewed at a school, Casa Roosevelt [the Sao Paulo ], which was sponsored by the Franklin Roosevelt School to teach English. It was an open-air, backyard kind of thing. There were a great many young kids, junior high and high school students, who were asking Dizzy questions. They wanted to come to the evening performance, but they didn't have the money. (We found out that our secondary sponsor, the U.S. , was charging admission.) We told the kids to present their IDs and they'd get in. Dizzy refused to play until the kids were allowed in. He said, 'We're doing this for the people.'" American National Theater Academy
"For me, one of the most interesting and poignant facts of this documentary on Dizzy is not only about his music. I often looked on Dizzy as a Chaplin-esque character. He would do these cute, funny things. In addition to being known as a supreme musician, people knew him as a clown. He had comedic tendencies, and he would utilize them with an audience and be able to get an audience friendly. This can be heard here, particularly during "
," when you can hear the audience's laughter. He did these little dances and all that kind of stuff, and of course the band would follow him. However, having known him for the number of years that I did, I also knew a serious side to him. That serious side was shown very rarely - sometimes during an interview, but never within the structure of a performance. But he does one number [track seven], and there's a pause. Then he comes to the mic, and he comes on very straight. He says, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen.' Then he turns from the mic and says [to himself), 'Oh my goodness, I'm out of character.' He didn't intend for the mic to pick it up, which it did, just barely. It's so brief that it escapes attention, but the memory of that moment looms in my mind. Manteca
also gained as a result of the tour. In every hotel, in every country we U.S.
visited, people were always waiting in the lobby, day and night, to meet Dizzy, or even just get a glimpse of him. Somehow, a few of them would always get upstairs. They would be waiting in the hall outside Dizzy's room. We tried to be nice, but it would often get intense. It was hard to move around or visit from room to room, as we often did. Someone would always want to accompany you, or take you out somewhere for a drink, or give you a present for Dizzy. Some of these guys must have figured out I was P.R. because they started approaching me. One day, a young man introduced himself to me. He was very bright, with a really quick wit. I gave in and took the young Lalo Shifrin (with his arrangements) to meet Dizzy. Lalo was the leader of the only bebop big band in
. Dizzy listened to him play and immediately wanted to hire him. He asked Lalo to go to the Argentina and work with him. After that, Lalo spent nearly four years and countless sit-ins with Dizzy. Of course, Lalo went on to write some of U.S. 's greatest scores; Bullet, Coolhand Luke, Dirty Harry, Hollywood Mission Impossible, and, recently, Tango and Rush Hour."
Reminiscing about the orchestra put a smile on Usher's face. “They flowed and drove so well. Precision and warmth. These two words don't normally go together, but they do in the case of this group of musicians. The band was able to achieve this partly because they had been working together on the road with only one day a week off, and partly because they were doing these particular compositions steady every night. But steady doesn't mean a thing if you don't have the enthusiasm of an audience. These audiences picked up on the feel. They understood what the band was doing."
Now we can all hear what the band was doing in
South America, beginning on Volume 1 with Tadd Dameron's "Cool Breeze," taken at a faster pace than in the old days. This is one of the arrangements that Billy Eckstine let Gil Fuller have for the second Gillespie band, five days before it was to open at the Spotlite in 1946. Trombonist Frank Rehak, who stylistically was coming behind Earl Swope, opens the soloing with a combination of fluidity and rich tone. Gillespie is up next. Here a quote from Bama Warwick is in order. In Dizzy's book, to BE or not to BOP, says, "Diz was really at his peak. He was really fired up playing in front of that big band..." Warwick
Bama was referring to the
Middle East tour, but he could just as well have been talking about Latin America. Dizzy's chops are phenomenal, with imagination to match. Sprinkled into his leaping solo are quotes from "Hawaiian War Chant" (altissimo), “The Hut-Sut Song," and Illinois Jacquet's "Bottoms Up." You can hear the crowd in a stirred-up state before the saxes begin to riff behind Diz. Then Billy Mitchell's tenor sax keeps the temperature at its elevated state. Dizzy comes back for a second helping, melding with the band to a close.
Ernie Wilkins' "Groovin' for Nat" (Hentoff, as you might rightly assume) is an airy, sophisticated swinger with Charlie Persip kicking away. Gillespie's two solo spots sandwich Mitchell's, and there's a short bit from a distant Walter Davis.
In a studio version of "Can't Get Started," Quincy Jones gets credit for the arrangement. Perhaps he did the orchestration, but the introduction/ending, which Dizzy created for his small-band version in 1945 and also utilized on "Round Midnight," is present here, as are the figures under his opening interpretation of the melody, also from 1945.
In Gillespie's big-band format for his "A Night in
," the trombone always transmits the exotic theme. Rehak helps establish the mood before the table is set for the dazzling Diz catapulting seamlessly into his solo with one of his classic suspended beginnings. Tenorist Benny Golson, with his Byas-ed stylings, catches the air of mystery well, and bassist Nelson Boyd (the man for whom "Half Nelson" was named) plucks a sonorous solo. Dizzy's coda caps the trip with a climactic exclamation point. Then, in a variety of languages, he thanks the audience for its applause before stating some multilingual toasts. Tunisia
Then it's Austin Cromer's turn in the spotlight. Judging by his efforts here, it is hard to figure out why he never made it. His voice is effective in all registers. He can shout, as on "Seems Like You Just Don't Care," where Gillespie solos; and croon, amply demonstrated by "Flamingo," where lead alto saxist Jimmy Powell is heard in solo. Cromer's dramatic ballad style is Eckstine-tinged (in a way he reminds me more of Al Hibbler) but he has his own sound within the genre.
"Stella by Starlight" is the first of two Melba Liston arrangements. Gillespie interprets the melody, interweaving and alternating with the chart in which Liston uses the song's arresting harmonic structure to her advantage. Diz solos more broadly toward the end, topping it off with his heavenly chops.
The band shuffles off to "School Days," with
plinking away before expanding his single line, which includes a reference to 'The Peanut Vendor." Vocalist Gillespie updates the old nursery rhyme, having a lot of fun, and Mitchell comes on like a bar-walker with some rock-house tenor that, even in its semi-parody, cooks like crazy. Davis
Volume 1 of this tour closes with "
,” one of Dizzy’s hits. It’s all here: the ‘I’ll never go back to Manteca ,’ chant; the maestro’s flights over the Latin vamp; the theme; a short solo from Mitchell; and an even shorter one from Dizzy. The rhythm section takes over at this point with bass bone and cowbell in the mix. Soon the ensemble is into the ‘Is-tan-bul, Con-stan-ti-nople’ groove, and you know Diz is dancing. Persip, an inspiring helmsman throughout, brings it back into the ‘ Georgia ’ vamp and out with the main theme never restated. Manteca
There you have Volume I of Dizzy in
South America. Volumes 2 and 3 will be issued in the near future. They will not only contain more exciting big-band sides, but also some very special recordings Dizzy made with a samba band in Brazil and a tango ensemble in Argentina!”
[Gitler’s first published piece on Jazz, which appeared in his high school (Columbia Grammar prep) newspaper (March 1946), covered Dizzy Gillespie’s small group at the Spotlite. Gitler’s friendship with
Dave Usher began when they met at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.]
Dizzy Gillespie - Leader & Trumpet
E. V. Perry - Trumpet
Phil Woods and Jimmy Powell - Alto
Benny Golson and Billy Mitchell -Tenor
Marty Flax - Baritone
Melba Liston, Frank Rehak, and Rod Levitt -
Walter Davis, Jr. - Piano, Nelson Boyd - Bass
Charlie Persip - Drums