Dizzy’s Swinging Bands

Dizzy big band

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was one of the few jazz giants of my time I unfortunately never got to see live, but of course I saw him on TV fairly often. A truly great and original trumpeter and an equally great entertainer, Dizzy was often called “the clown prince of bebop” and compared to Louis Armstrong. And Dizzy admired Armstrong tremendously, so much so that he was elated when he heard, c. 1946 or ’47, that the great man had come to see him perform. During the 1950s he tried, twice, to convince Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, to let him record a couple of albums playing duets with Satchmo, but Glaser would have none of it. Although he knew full well that Gillespie really liked and admired Armstrong, and would not have tried to show him up, he also knew that the jazz critics would not let the opportunity pass to use Gillespie to beat Armstrong like a stick. They did play together just once, on the Jackie Gleason TV show, a performance of the old early-‘40s tune The Umbrella Man, and it was marvelous. The two of them listened to each other, and in my opinion Armstrong never played better during that period in his career. It was as if his creativity got a jump start.

But Dizzy wasn’t really dizzy when it came to music, even though I’ve met people who took his onstage clowning very badly. One woman I met, listening to his 1946 recording of A Night in Tunisia in 1986, told me that he had forgotten how good he was because of all the decades of clowning. Once, at a club in the 1950s, Dizzy started one of his silly gibberish songs and a slightly inebriated patron (possibly a music critic) yelled out for him to cut the crap. Dizzy laughed and went on with his nonsense song, then launched into a brilliant full-chorus solo, after which he walked up to the man, grinned in his face and said, “Seeeeee?” He had cut his musical eye-teeth in the very fine but now forgotten NBC jazz band led by Teddy Hill, who later managed the famous nightclub Minton’s Playhouse which was the nursery of bop, and always credited the little-known Bill Dillard, first trumpet in the Hill band, for teaching him how to lead a section.

After he left the Hill hand, Gillespie played brief stints in the big bands of Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. He also wrote arrangements for the famous white bands led by Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman, and in 1945 he sat in with the well respected Boyd Raeburn band, where he soloed on two tracks, March of the Boyds and his own tune (and arrangement) of A Night in Tunisia. His reputation among musicians, particularly in the early years, was that of a kook who didn’t know how to “play in tune.” The problem was not that Gillespie was out of tune but that he was exploring the upper harmonics or the “overtone series” of chord positions. Alto saxist Charlie Parker was doing the same thing at about the same time, but Parker’s high-range playing was softer-grained in sound and his basic aesthetic more blues-based. Gillespie’s style was more angular. Whereas other modern trumpeters hinted at higher intervals, occasionally playing one or two notes as a 13th or a 14th, Gillespie tended to live up there, playing the overtone sequence as a strong melodic structure—all at breakneck speed, mostly in 16ths and 32nds. This kind of playing is what unsettled many listeners, particularly in the early 1940s when the whole concept of blowing open the overtone series—at least in jazz—was not merely new but unheard-of. It is what led Cab Calloway, Woody Herman and Mary Lou Williams to call his playing “Chinese music,” since the intervals he played didn’t seem to fit into Western tonality…except that they did, as overtones. By the late 1940s, virtually everyone, including Williams, came to realize that what Gillespie was doing was indeed musical, and brilliant, but in 1941, when he wrote the scores of Down Under and Woody’n You for the Woody Herman band, Herman had the audacity to tell him to stick to writing and give up the trumpet!

Building on his growing reputation as the most outstanding modern trumpet soloist of his day, Gillespie formed his first big band in 1946. At that time there were no other full-time bebop bands, though the avant-garde jazz bands of Raeburn and Stan Kenton ruled the roost. Stocked with young, unknown musicians (among them tenor saxist James Moody, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis and bassist Ray Brown), the Gillespie band was essentially based on the standard brass-vs-reeds orchestration that had been considered formulaic since the beginning of the swing era. The difference was, as in the case of Gillespie’s own solo style, in the treatment of rhythm. It has often been said that Gillespie was the first soloist in jazz to come along with an entirely different sense of rhythm than Louis Armstrong. This is essentially true, although the little-remembered Cladys “Jabbo” Smith actually started to break that mold in the late 1920s (but that is another story for another time, as Smith was that most tragic of figures, a musician who sabotaged his own career). To break it down to basics, Armstrong was—like his slightly older colleague Sidney Bechet—an opera diva singing on the trumpet in a Romantic fashion, whereas Gillespie was a Stravinskyite. It was like the difference between Monet and Picasso. And in his big band, Gillespie found four other trumpeters—originally Dave Burns, Elmon Wright, Matthew McKay and John Lynch, with the latter two later replaced by Lamar Wright and Benny Bailey, then later still with Benny Harris replacing BurnsOol-Ya-Koo and Willie Cook replacing Bailey—who were able to play like him, at least when he wrote out the improvisations, scored them for five trumpets, and led the section himself. The effect was stunning if a little messy: the 1940s Gillespie band always seemed to have slight intonation problems, particularly in the reed section. But in the end it didn’t matter because their playing was just so exciting. I can still recall, as an 18-year-old, buying the RCA Victor Vintage LPs The Be-Bop Era and Dizzy Gillespie, and thrilling to such mind-boggling pieces as Ow!, Stay on It, Oop-Pop-A-Da and Cool Breeze (on the former) and many more on the latter (Lover Come Back to Me, Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid, Hey Pete! Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat, Woody’n You, Ool-Ya-Koo, Duff Capers, Guarachi Guaro and that well-known bebop fairy tale, In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee). For one raised on the more traditional swing bands of Ellington, Miller, Basie and Tommy Dorsey, the Gillespie band hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t get enough of them; they were febrile in a way that was almost beyond words, even on studio recordings, the band fairly exploding from the grooves of the records and Dizzy riding above the fray like some high, wailing banshee Lord of the Rings. It fairly blew my 18-year-old mind.

BeBop Era

Gillespie Victor Vintage

Imagine my surprise, when I mentioned this great band to my father, to learn that he had heard them live—at least, from down the block. He was working as a bartender at the Hotel Metropole at 147 West 43rd Street in New York, just off Times Square, while the Gillespie band was playing at a club roughly half a block away. He told me that the club often opened the doors wide while the band was blasting away in order to lure paying customers inside. My teenage imagination was running wild. WOW! Imagine being able to hear that great band live, and for free, night after night! But guess what? My father hated them! With a passion! His favorite bands were Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye and Blue Barron. In fact, one of his proudest possessions was a genuine Sammy Kaye baton from his experience as a volunteer in Sammy’s “So you want to lead a band” shtick (where Kaye would invite audience members to come up and try to conduct the orchestra, which of course played badly on purpose…but the suckers got to keep the cheap cedar batons they were given to use). Unbelievable. He thought the Gillespie band played noisy, incomprehensible music. But alas, he wasn’t alone. Despite a three-year contract with RCA Victor, who did their best to promote his recordings, by the time 1950 rolled around Dizzy’s band was on its last legs financially.

But in a sense, Gillespie’s sharp mind and irreverent sense of humor was an obstacle as much as a benefit. He was such a wise-ass in interviews and photo shoots that he even sometimes offended his own fellow musicians, when all he meant to do was rib them a little. One of the more famous (or infamous) was a picture taken in the late 1940s, when several of his friends were converting to Islam in order to be taken seriously as human beings, kneeling on a prayer rug and bowing towards Mecca. He only did it as a “goof,” not realizing he was hurting their feelings, and later apologized for it. My late friend, the jazz critic Ralph Berton, also recalled an uncomfortable moment. Gillespie, like Berton, was a fanatic chess player, so Ralph and Dizzy met every night for a week in the early morning hours at a truck stop on the outskirts of New York City where they could quietly play chess unmolested. Or so Berton thought, until the time a group of big, hulking truck drivers dropped in for an early breakfast. Dizzy turn around in his chair, with his arms folded across the back and his chin on his arms, staring intently at the truck drivers. “Jesus Christ, Dizzy!” Berton hissed. “What the hell are you doing?” “Studying them,” said Dizzy. “I’m a student of humanity. I like to study people.” “Well, don’t study them so intently. For crying out loud! They might come over here and pound you into the ground!” And indeed, after a couple of minutes of Gillespie boring holes in their heads with his eyes, one or two of them glowered in his direction. But the angel of mercy must have been with him that morning because none of them came over and asked him to step outside.

The two most famous recordings of that first Gillespie band featured the wild bongo playing and chanting of Luciano “Chano” Pozo, who was shot to death in December 1948 by a dope dealer he offended by saying he sold him inferior marijuana. The first of these was Manteca, a wild Afro-Cuban piece written by Pozo and Gillespie and arranged by Walter “Gil” Fuller, one of the most underrated big band writers who ever lived. Pozo’s wild cries of “Manteca! Manteca!” (which, ironically, translates as “butter”!) over his bongo playing and the screaming trumpets of the band created an undercurrent of rhythmic convulsion, and the bongo player is in equally good form on the other famed recording, George Russell’s early two-part composition Cubano Be, Cubano Bop. This was not the first example of modal jazz on records—that honor goes to Jelly Roll Morton’s Dead Man Blues—but it was certainly the most sophisticated composition based on modes recorded by that time (1947). These two discs, along with several of the titles mentioned above, are a pretty fair representation of the first Gillespie band’s excitement and drive.

Following the collapse of this first, and greatest, of his bands, Gillespie led a number of small combos and played on the soundtrack of a French film titled Les Tricheurs (The Tricksters or Young Sinners) with an all-star band including Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and the Oscar Peterson Trio. Then in 1956, while playing with a sextet at Birdland, Dizzy played a guest gig at the Showboat in Washington. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. recommended him to President Eisenhower, who asked him to form a band to make a state department tour of the Middle East. Since he was already signed to play in a “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour of Europe, he gave the young composer-arranger Quincy Jones the task of assembling and rehearsing the band. Jones signed up some promising young talent, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxist-arranger Benny Golson when they were still tyros with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, female trombonist-arranger Melba Liston, former Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey arranger Ernie Wilkins, and two of the best white jazz musicians of the day, alto saxist Phil Woods and trombonist Rod Levitt (who, being Jewish, had some uncomfortable moments when the band played in Muslim countries).

1956-57 big bandThis band, then, was a bit less Gillespie’s “own” as was the early bop band, despite the fact that they revived some of his early arrangements (A Night in Tunisia, Cool Breeze, Tin Tin Deo and Hey Pete, Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat) as well as some newer ones like The Champ and Birk’s Works. These were quintessential Gillespie: bright as a penny and wildly swinging, with Dizzy’s brilliant solos riding above the fray (this period marked one of the last times we would hear Gillespie’s trumpet soaring in the stratosphere much as it had in the 1946-50 period). Wilkins’ arrangements and compositions, like Dizzy Business, were also in the same mold, and two novelty tunes by Babs Gonzales (Mayflower Rock and Joogie Boogie) added yet another, and whimsical, dimension. Yet the compositions and arrangements by Golson, Jones and Liston were more texturally sophisticated, more modern in their time and less beholden to 1940s big band fashions. Among these pieces were Jones’ Jessica’s Day, Golson’s Whisper Not and I Remember Clifford, as well as very nice arrangements of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, The Debussy-Mack Gordon My Reverie, Jacques Prevert’s Autumn Leaves, Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow and a wonderful transcription of Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance retitled Annie’s Dance.

Dizzy snake charming

Dizzy doing some snake charming in Pakistan, 1956

Perhaps not surprisingly, this second Gillespie orchestra made as much if not more of an impact making real friends overseas than breaking new musical ground. Allyn Shipton, author of Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, points out that he “accomplished, perhaps better than all the ambassadors and envoys and ministers combined, the almost impossible feat of making genuine friends on an intimate personal basis” in such places as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Pakistan. He rode a motorcycle through the streets of Zagreb with Yugoslav composer Nikica Kaogjera riding behind him and charmed snakes in Pakistan. The band also toured South America and made friends there as well.

The disbanding of this second Gillespie band in 1957 marked the end of Dizzy’s career as a big bandleader. Happily for posterity, both incarnations of the Gillespie orchestra remain preserved both in studio and live recordings, and give us a different dimension of this multi-talented musician. Despite the high spirits, the scatting, the clowning and the occasional yells of delight, these are serious and well-crafted scores, not always on the highest order in terms of exploring substitute chording or unusual voicing, but never less than interesting, never dull, and quintessentially Dizzy Gillespie. In terms of sheer musical culture, of course the early band was the more important and groundbreaking, but the later one was an experience all its own. You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard both.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz


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