Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dizzy Gillespie in South America - Part 2

PART 2 – The Interviews
© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The subsequent account by Quincy Jones is drawn from the JAM SESSION website which is maintained by the Meridian International Center – Arts for Cultural Diplomacy and the Institute for Jazz Studies and helps provides a background for Dizzy’s 1956 State Department Tour of South America.

Dave Usher also interviews Quincy and it appears as track 13 on Volume 3 of Dizzy in South America.

Following Qunicy’s testimonial there is a transcribed, text interview with alto saxophonist Phil Woods about his impressions of Dizzy and the South American tour of 1956 and a YouTube of Dave Usher’s interview with composer-arranger Lalo Schifrin, whom Dizzy met during the tour and who was to play such a significant role in Dizzy’s musical career for many years thereafter.

Our sincere thanks to Dave Usher, once again, for his generosity in allowing these materials to be featured on JazzProfiles.

© -Meridian International Center-Arts for Cultural Diplomacy; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Quincy Jones, Los Angeles, California

One of my happiest recollections is when the U.S. government in 1955 asked Dizzy Gillespie to organize a band that would travel to Southern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia as America's first Jazz Ambassadors. Dizzy was booked on a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Europe and was unable to recruit and rehearse the group. Since we had a history of working together he asked me to do it and, at the age of 22, I levitated. At the time, I was working on the first record by a 17-year-old unknown track jumper from San Francisco named Johnny Mathis. After I got the request from Dizzy, I explained to George Avakian that “my Nation” (Diz) had called and I had to decline the offer of working with Johnny.

Over several months, I found the best jazz musicians in the United States, reworked some of the older arrangements, wrote new ones, plus had band members like the great Melba Liston and Ernie Wilkins compose original charts. We wrote arrangements for the national anthems of every country we visited and also composed a piece representing “The History of Jazz.” We picked up Diz in Rome in March of 1956 and continued on to our first gig in Iran. The band was ready to play.


The entire trip was an adventure. We didn't know what we were getting into; neither did the State Department. It was new for everyone. While we expected to encounter leaders, we also wanted to meet the people. From Pakistan to Iran, Syria, and Yugoslavia we had a great time — learning about local customs, jamming with each country's musicians, and letting the music bring us together. We became the kamikaze band representing our country. I say that because there was conflict of some kind going on in every place we visited.

They were so pleased with our tour accomplishments that we were asked to make another trip that summer. We visited South America where, again, jazz helped us to build bridges and tell a larger story of America — and ourselves — to people from all walks of life. Music and art have that kind of power — and the fact that the State Department adopted this model for decades after our 1956 tours means that it worked.

There is no substitute for these kinds of personal exchanges — especially those based on the arts. They allow us to better understand one another, to respect and value our differences, and more importantly, our similarities. They also do this on a profound level that can change attitudes and beliefs. Believe it or not, some of these countries had never seen or heard trumpets, trombones or saxophones play together.

The jazz tours, many over fifty years in the past, may not be known by some Americans, especially the very young. That is why I am pleased Meridian International Center has organized Jam Session for travel around the country and the world. This exhibit captures America's jazz greats as they shared their spirit with the people of the world — and shows how music can create lasting connections.”


© -Subsequent interviews transcribed and reprinted with the permission of Dave Usher; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

PHIL WOODS - 2001

“Dizzy was just pivotal to my whole being, to the core of my being.

One of the last gigs we did was the Dizzy Gillespie-Phil Woods All-Stars in Europe.

Now we’re playing Birks Works, and Dizzy says to me: ‘You’re having a little trouble with the pick-ups, aren’t you?’

And I said: ‘Well, I got no rhythm, you know: I’m Irish.!’ All of a sudden, I was back to being 24-years old again and I’m playing with Dizzy Gillespie.  But when he said that to me, school was open again.

He said: ‘You know, I’m standing right next to you’

Dizzy never missed a beat, he never missed a trick. Now the sound at the gig is echoing all over the place, the drums are reverberating and I couldn’t hear the center of the beat.

So I said to Dizzy: ‘Birks, so how the hell do you find the center when its all spread out like that?’

Dizzy doesn’t miss a stitch, never did, so he says to me: ‘You know, I’m a rhythm man!’ [laughter!]


Dizzy is the most important musician to come out of Jazz. He had it all. He could communicate with the people and he took a lot of raps because he was a communicator.  He was always modest and even when the critics were putting him down, Dizzy always gave the credit to Charlie Parker [nicknamed “Bird”].

Bird was the meteor who came across the sky and disappeared, but Dizzy was the guy who took it all and carried right through to the end.  He was always ‘going to school.’ Dizzy was good at playing the piano; Bird didn’t play any piano. Birks [Dizzy’s middle name] had the piano down; harmonically he was a master.

Nothing was ever said in that Ken Burns thing [PBS documentary series on Jazz] about [doesn’t continue this thought but instead asked the question]. Where would Charlie Parker be without [composer] Jerome Kern?

You know, the Jewish-European harmonic sense is what Dizzy and Bird got and it fed the Bebop soul.  Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all those cats – I call them Jewish European, but they weren’t all Jewish – but they all had the European tradition of harmony.

But this never gets mentioned. Without songs they wrote like The Song is You and All The Things You Are, you wouldn’t have Dizzy and Bird. Diz and Bird went hand-in-hand with the European harmonic tradition; [Burns] really missed the boat on this … [relationship].

These are the songs they utilized [to create the structure for Bebop] and these songs are European-based [harmonically]. They are not an American invention: these didn’t come Appalachia or the spirituals in New Orleans; this is how Jazz got its voice, as a blend of Afro & European things.

[The influences on] Jazz is not just based on one continent, but on influences from the whole world.


Dizzy was the first one to collate it [these Afro-European influences], to analyze it and to put it into a form and explain it to the Swing [era] guys like [tenor saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins; and [alto saxophonist composer-arranger] Benny Carter was there too; he was utilizing this harmony.

You can’t subdivide [subtract?] the rhythm from the harmony. When you got the rhythm that Birks had plus the harmonic sophistication, you got the whole package. [By comparison], Bird was just instinctive, but Dizzy was more studied [in the accomplished sense of the word]; he was just a student all his life.”

At this point, Dave Usher reflects on [but doesn’t give a specific location for] a later tour that he had made with Dizzy in the 1980s and hisf suggestion to Dizzy that they use their off-night to go hear a Jazz group.  Dizzy’s answer was: “I don’t want to hear a Jazz group, I want to hear their thing” [i.e.: native or indigenous music].

[Phil picks it up from here again and says]: “Yeah’ like jamming with a snake charmer [something Dizzy actually did in Karachi, Pakistan during a 1955 tour]. He was always studying music no matter where he went.”

I never met him before he did it, but Quincy Jones put that  band together – God Bless Quincy Jones – he was the one that heard me on the [earlier] Birdland All-Stars tour and that led to me being on the band for the 1955/56 State Department Tours.

Can you imagine, I’m 24-years old and I’m on stage playing Groovin’ High with Dizzy Gillespie? It began a friendship and that love that we had for each other … [interrupts thought and continues with] … I can tell you a whole bunch of stories about how important he was to my life, but that South American tour in 1956 was pivotal.

I’m so happy that you are finally releasing [the music] from it because, Man, when Dizzy took that batting stance and put that horn up to his chops with a big band, that was Dizzy at his best. Just listen to his performance on A Night in Tunisia – he hits it out of the park. It’s primo; it’s just primo. We knew that at the time, of course. But now, the rest of the world can hear it too.

Dave Usher: Well, that’s the wonderful part of being able to do this [release the music from Dizzy’s 1956 tour of South America]. He’s been so underrated; I don’t know what we can do to make history find its way [to accord Dizzy the recognition he deserves].


Phil continues:  His [Dizzy’s] contribution is so important that its probably going to take historians a hundred [100] years to figure it out. We haven’t even figured out Duke Ellington, yet!  American goes on; the ash tray is full; buy a new car. And now its even worse than ever with most people’s attention span being as long an eight note.

Hopefully, the cats [Jazz musicians] will always know and his message will be clear. But your right, people have a funny viewpoint of who Dizzy is. ‘ Oh, that Dizzy Gillespie, he’s just that crazy guy that funny guy.’ They have no idea of his depth.  Because he could communicate [through his humor] with an audience, even the be-boppers put Dizzy down. They criticized him for show-boating or pandering when he was just being Dizzy and trying to help people feel good.

Dave Usher: [Point well-taken] … it’s very interesting that when Dizzy and I got together and started Dee Gee Records [in 1951], we did tunes like School Days and
Oo-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be because both of us felt that it would be an opportunity to bring people in who wouldn’t normally listen to us. And within the structure of that commercial appeal, he could play and the group could play, which is exactly what those things were all about.

Phil Woods continues: That’s similar to the reason why Charlie Parker made the album with strings, to play some [recognizable] melodies. Bird didn’t have that savoir faire, that je na sais quoi communication that Dizzy had.

What’s wrong with trying to touch some people?  Is that a dirty word? Miles and his guys moved it into an art form, but there’s a balancing act between art forms and entertainment and Dizzy is the guy who walk that tightrope and do that trapeze act.

This is why he [Dizzy] was the best choice for the State Department. Because even though people didn’t understand the music, they liked the way this man stood up in front of that band and boy, they sure knew he was a ‘rhythm man.’ Just the way he used to dance during the introduction to Manteca.

And we had a lot of laughs like when he called me and said: ‘Look we got this quick State Department tour of South America coming up. I know you got the $25 last time, but this time it’ll be $50 [assumedly referring to Phil’s weekly tour salary], but you are the only guy whose got a passport and all the shots. And you know the book; you wanna come back?’

I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’  And I went to South America and it was like a Gift from God.


Dizzy was always doing stuff, like one night he kidnapped me. This was in the 1960s. Art Blakey was working somewhere and I was sitting at the bar, bitching and complaining.

During the break, Art and Dizzy kidnapped me, the put me in a cab and one sat on either side of me in the back seat and Dizzy got a look on his face and said: ‘What’s your problem Woods?’

And I said: ‘Well, you know, things [work opportunities] are just not happening.’

Dizzy said; ‘If you got your act together, you could make something of yourself.’

I said: ‘You really think I’m any good ?!’

Dizzy said: ‘Yes, if you stop whining and grow up and play your horn.’

I said: Ya, but I’m a white guy …. [trails off].’

Dizzy said: ‘Bird gave it to everybody. Bird gave the music to all races. If you can hear it, you can have it. You have the talent; grow up.’

Phil: Art Blakey was saying the same thing. So that’s when I got my own band and I never looked back.’

Can you image these Giants of Jazz taking time out of their busy scheduled to talk with this Irish-honkey who is crying the blues? You know when your 24, 25 or 26-years old you have all these doubts.

Dave Usher interjects: Yes, but he [Dizzy] wouldn’t say that unless he felt it.

Phil comments: I know, I know, I was always grateful that he gave me that kind of support. I always looked up to him for that and admired him.


The last tour we did together Dizzy said to me: ‘I’m so lucky to be a Jazz musician.’ Here’s this guy who at that time had been doing it for 50+ years who still thinks that he’s a lucky so-and-so.

And I feel the same way.  Dizzy always gave something back; he was especially patient with the young guys and I’ve always tried to keep that tradition, too. Charlie Parker was this way, so was Art Blakey and many of the other Giants.

That ‘oral tradition of the tribe’ which has kind of been lost with all of this Jazz education that we have now. But, then too, I’m all for it because any time you can get a guy to play an instrument he’s less likely to kill you with an Uzi.

I’m the last generation to learn at the feet of the Masters. I mean I was there. The Masters and The Youth used to travel on the same bus. There are no more buses. I mean, that was our university.

It ain’t just about Giant Steps [i.e.: being able to play on the complicated chord changes to this tune written by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane as a rite of initiation].

The young guys and the old guys played in big bands together, small groups together; there was a sharing, like a family thing that was very special.

Piazzolla [Argentine tango composer and bandoneĆ³n player. His oeuvre revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style termed nuevo tango.] came to hear my quintet when we were working at Fat Tuesday’s and he said: ‘You had no idea how important it was for us to hear you guys during the 1956 tour.’

He [Astor Piazzolla] wanted to take the old fashioned tango to another step; you know, they call him the Charlie Parker of Argentina. ‘When I hear that [Dizzy’s band], I knew exactly what to do.’

Because Piazzolla was European-trained, he related to the intricate harmonies of Dizzy and that combined with the rhythmical aspects of the Afro-Cuban thing that he was doing.

I mean the light went on all over South America [as a result of Dizzy’s 1956 tour]. Even Jobim, same thing.  The sophistication of that music, the difficulty of bebop reached them.  It’s one of the most difficult ways to improvise ever created.


Now kids can kind of rattle it off, but it sounds like it’s being done by rote; it doesn’t have the touch of the street like it had then [1940’s and 50’s].

You had to have the sophistication to learn it, but you also had to have both feet planted on the sidewalk and the sidewalk wasn’t exactly 5th Avenue, baby, or the Champs Elysees. [laughter]

It was the people’s music.  It wasn’t an elitist type of an art form which it has sort of become today. Everyone was dancing to the same beat. In those days, Jazz unified American families and the whole world. It wasn’t only important to the South American musicians, it represented freedom to all those Iron Curtain countries.

Those State Department tour are an example of whenever American wanted to do something good, in those days they sent a Jazz band. I mean our first tour was Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey – all the trouble spots of the world.  I think they should have sent Dizzy a couple of more times, it might have saved us some lives.

Dizzy’s lessons have really paid off because now I think that some of the strongest music is coming from the Latin American countries.

People ask me: ‘Where is Jazz going’ and I think its going to international areas that have more rhythmic sophistication.

Dizzy, Monk and Bird took it harmonically about as far as you can go.  And then the Free [Jazz] guys took it another step to atonal – you know, no tonal center.  That didn’t work then and it still doesn’t work now. Minimalist stuff doesn’t work and is very dull.

Dizzy also pointed out that ‘South American musicians knew more about our music than we knew about theirs. He was right and we got to redress that balance, I think and start to “steal their licks” [musical phrasing]. It’s happening, there are some developments and you can trace all of these to the father – Dizzy.

At this point, Dave closes the interview with Phil stating in the waning moments: ‘I’m so lucky to be a Jazz musician.’”


© -Subsequent interview used with the permission of Dave Usher; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

LALO SCHIFRIN – 2001 [Click on the accompanying YouTube below to hear Dave Usher’s interview with Lalo Schifrin].