Friday, September 6, 2019

Dizzy's Big Band

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

There are two things that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has a well-developed fondness for: [1] Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in all its manifestations over the years and [2] Gene Lees’ writings about Jazz in their varied forms and issuances over the years. 

With the exception of listening to Dizzy’s big band itself, the next best thing is reading what Gene has to say about it and its significance in the World of Jazz.

Fortunately for us, the concert discussed in Gene’s piece was saved to record, first as an LP by the impresario Gene Norman for his Crescendo Label and subsequently as a CD when it was released along with some tracks from an early concert in Paris as Vogue VG 655612.

Before Gene’s passing in April 2010, he granted his permission to reproduce this piece about Dizzy’s Big Band from one of the earliest editions of his Jazzletter [June 15, 1983 Vol. 2 No. 11].

The photos that populate Gene’s essay and the video at its conclusion have been added.

In the interest of accuracy, the concert by Diz’s band at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium did not take place in 1949, but rather, on July 26, 1948. This correction is corroborated by the fact that Chano Pozo died in 1948.

© Copyright protected; all rights reserved

“I never saw Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and what could be heard of it on records left me frustrated. Many musicians contend that it was one of the greatest of all the bands, and some say the greatest. Most recordings of it, however, seem like faded photographs of a dream. Tape was only coming into general use and stereo was ten years in the future.

One recent evening I had dinner with Gene Norman. Afterwards we repaired to the house high above the Sunset Strip (and a few blocks from Woody Herman's house) where he has lived for more than thirty years. Below us Los Angeles stretched far in the dark, a carpet of lights much more striking than it seemed in those movies of my high school days wherein the hero took the girl to one of the roads above the city to neck in a convertible and tell her Something Important. It was in fact during those days that so many of us were first listening to Dizzy.

We settled in the studio office Gene has at one end of his house. There was only one low lamp in the room; the city was a picture in a wide window. Gene played test pressings of some albums he was about to release on his Crescendo label, including one by the Philippine pianist Bobby Enriquez, who had just finished touring for six months with Dizzy.

Gene asked if I'd heard the LP derived from the 1949 concert by Dizzy's big band that he had produced at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Not that I know of, I said. Gene got a copy of the album from a shelf and cracked the shrink wrap. He said it was one of the records listed in Len Lyons' book, The 101 Greatest Jazz Albums. In an interview published in the May, 1983, issue of Keyboard, Joe Zawinul too called it one of the greatest of all jazz albums.

And it is. It belongs in the library of everyone who loves jazz and assuredly in every school where jazz is taught. Despite a hissy surface from the acetate discs on which it was originally recorded, despite some wayward balances and other shortcomings in sound, it is a vital representation of the Dizzy Gillespie big band. It brings the legend to life.

The band had everything, laughter and swing and invention and vitality, an incredible fire and an exquisite balance of abandon and control. It is almost beyond belief that traditionalists could have found this music nihilistic or anti-social or sullen or nervous; it is filled with youth and joy and exuberance. The boppers were accused of indifference to the audience; yet Dizzy was (and still is) accused of catering to it. "If making people laugh makes them more receptive to my music," he said to me more than twenty years ago, "then I'm going to do it." Had he not been so brilliant a musician, and of course had all other factors been equal, he could have been one of the great clowns, in a class with Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Not unlike Jack Benny, he can walk onstage, look around with a mock gravity and an apprehension that expresses all our suspicions of strangers and the unknown, and reduce an audience almost immediately to laughter - and submission.

The antics in the album indicate that the whole band had taken the cue from its leader. There are sudden unison vocal outbursts, even in a ballad such as Round About Midnight. They're funny and rehearsed. So far as the theory that bop killed the big bands is concerned, the Pasadena Civic concert was a sell-out, partly due to the promotion done by Gene Norman, then a young disc jockey. (He had offered free admission to those who turned up looking like Dizzy, in horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, and beret. A hundred young men had done so.)

In point of fact, only a few of the bands really embraced bop. Woody Herman's was one. Bop became largely a music of quintets. Dizzy's was, really, the only flat-out all-bop big band. It featured no singers of current ballads, it played for listeners instead of dancers. Every man in the band was a disciple, including James Moody on tenor, Ernie Henry on alto, and Cecil Payne on baritone. If, as Artie Shaw insists, it is almost impossible for anyone who was not young in the 1920s to conceive of Louis Armstrong's originality and his impact on musicians, it may be impossible for anyone not young in the 1940s to perceive the impact of Gillespie and Parker. The surprising thing is how many musicians had by 1949 assimilated their conception and approach, enough that Dizzy was able to put together this band and there were of course many more like them out there somewhere. All the men in the band are echoes of Dizzy, but by no means pale echoes, as Cecil Payne proves in bopping away with prodigious facility on Stay On It, a tune by Count Basic and Tadd Dameron. Dameron and Gil Fuller are credited as the arrangers of this band. But Dizzy's thinking infuses the writing.

Also in the band was Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist who was murdered not long after this concert. (Gene Norman believes this was his last recorded performance.) Here again we see the breadth of Dizzy's vision, his role in the Afro-Cuban infusion into jazz and later, his part in importing Brazilian samba, all of it a reaching back to an African past to shape the music's future. Just as elements of Elizabethan balladry were preserved in comparative purity in the Appalachian hills until the highways came punching through, patterns of pure African percussion survived in Cuban backwaters, at least until Castro's drive for universal literacy. Dizzy perceived the importance of this and, among other things, hired Chano Pozo at a time when few could see what that music had to do with jazz. Pozo is heard to powerful effect on Manteca, which is Spanish for lard or butter and slang in Cuba for pot.

Because of what Dizzy became, it is too easy to forget what he was when this band, with a trumpet section playing bravura unison passages perfectly in his style, came into being. Dizzy was thirty-two when he led it, and he already had a substantial body of achievement behind him. Let's not get too excited about his youth. Mozart was dead at thirty-six, Charlie Christian and Scott LaFaro in their early twenties. Nonetheless, Dizzy was a young man at the time. And the most remarkable musician in the band was its leader.

The Gillespie- Parker revolution has been assimilated into American music. As Dizzy has pointed out, you hear its traces in television commercials. Dizzy himself is one of those who assimilated the innovations, thereby conforming to a common life pattern: major scientists, such as Einstein and Heisenberg, spend the rest of their lives working out implications of discoveries made in their twenties. This is not to suggest that he has been static. Far from it. A couple of years ago, he changed his embouchure and talked to friends with a neophyte's enthusiasm about its effects on his playing. One effect is a great expansion of his tone. This from a man of sixty-five. Clark Terry and Plas Johnson and I sat listening to him at Monterey a year ago, in a state of awe. "He's still the master," Clark said. He plays now with a great secure wisdom, one of the giants of Twentieth Century music, an Olympian figure, really. A way to catch a sideways glance at his brilliance is found in this album in the scat-vocal track Ool-Ya-Koo. Yes it's funny, yes it's clownish. But just as his musical invention is luxuriant, so is his abstraction of language. In a perfect onomatopoeic evocation of his own playing, he flings out sounds and syllables unknown to English and probably every other language, entirely free of inhibition or any trace of desire to have them "make sense". You find yourself wondering how that mind works, how the man's neuro-muscular system has been put into such responsive touch with the incorporeal inner self. There is something of Zen archery in Dizzy's perfect communion with his own body.

His playing and singing are ecstatic, the root of which, as Rollo Mays points out in The Courage to Create, is ‘ex-stasis’ - to stand out from: to be, as Mays puts it, ‘freed from the usual split between subject and object which is a perpetual dichotomy in most human activity.’

He says, ‘Ecstasy is the accurate term for the intensity of conscious that occurs in the creative act. But it is not to be thought of merely as a Bacchic 'letting go'; it involves the total person, with the subconscious and unconscious acting in unity with the conscious. It is not, thus, irrational; it is, rather, suprarational. It brings intellectual, volitional, and emotional functions into play all together.’

And there you have Dizzy's playing on that stage in Pasadena. In his journey from thirty-two to sixty-five, something has been gained and something lost. This is not an evasive way of saying that his playing is not as good as it was. On the contrary, it is far better now. But something is gone, something that is of the intemperate time of youth. His playing had a madcap abandon, a total lack of caution. He had energy to burn and he burned it, squandered it, a magnificent wastrel. The band was the brilliant final flower of the era, and it is fortunate that recording equipment was running on that evening in Pasadena nearly thirty-five years ago.

As Manteca, the last track of the album, ended, the twenty-seven-year-old disc jockey who produced that concert, now sixty-one and white haired, sighed. ‘Those were great days,’ Gene Norman said.”

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