It was a scene right out of many a Big Easy bash: Four singers up on the elevated stage shouting out the lyrics to "The Saints," with most of the hundreds in the audience joining in, four trumpet players blaring out the familiar anthem while marching through the hanky-waving throng, another trumpeter leaping onto the bar, tiptoeing around the drinks. Another joyous grand finale to another grand jazz festival, but not in the New Orleans, y'all. This was in Cape May, N.J.
The fall edition of this semiannual gathering of some 7,000 fans was dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie, the irrepressible trumpeter, singer, prankster and pioneer of bebop, and 11 performers who played with Dizzy were on hand to keep it real, among them greats like Slide Hampton, Paquito d'Rivera, Herbie Mann, Junior Mance, Phil Woods and Benny Golson.
They took part in a roundtable discussion about Gillespie, polishing up his lofty star in the jazz firmament and reminiscing about the good times they shared. Some nuggets:
Woods: "He was, along with Louis Armstrong, one of America's greatest ambassadors. We should have sent him a few more times to Baghdad and Tehran, we might have avoided a whole lot of trouble."
Golson: "He singlehandedly, with 'Bird,' changed the course of this music."
Claudio Roditi: "He always had fun. I never saw him cross or cranky on the bandstand. But when he put his horn to his lips, he was all business. Serious."
Bassist John Lee's favorite anecdote: At a White House dinner, Dizzy was one of several jazzmen being honored. President Nixon interrupts him while he's eating, saying, "Uh, Diz, you think you could ask "Fatha' Hines to play something for us?" Dizzy turns around to retort: "You're the President, you ask him!"
These stars spoke even more eloquently through their instruments, led off by Herbie Mann's Jasil Brazz quintet, demonstrating a truth that Gillespie helped discover: jazz is America's music, but it belongs to the world and can absorb the melodies and rhythms from all cultures. Mann's group included two Brazilians and his repertoire ranged from bossas to a plaintive love song built around the strumming of a balalaika. Toss in some a down home Kansas City blues of the 1930s. Herbie was masterful as ever on flute.
Slide Hampton led the Gillespie Alumni band on a tour of Dizzy's own compositions: a romping "Salt Peanuts," a "Birks Works" blues that padded along with catlike grace, on which d'Rivera, Lee and young pianist Benny Green all excelled; and the infectious "Fiesta Mojo." (Hampton's translation: "Celebration for Moe and Joe.")
Junior Mance teamed up with up-and-coming altoist David Glasser, exploring the labyrinthine harmonies of "Round Midnight," Glasser closing his eyes, focusing on the ethereal sounds from his horn. Then they cut loose on "Blues in the Closet," Mance building to an exhilarating climax, literally bouncing on his bench to intensify his crescendo of crashing chords.
Benny Golson, playing in bassist Buster Williams' quartet, was improperly miked at the outset of the set I caught, but the soundman made adjustments in time for plenty of buttery tenor tones on the ballad "Thinking of You."
Dizzy's role in fusing jazz with Afro-Cuban music was showcased by the Arturo O'Farrill band, a congregation given to conflagration that was led for years by the late Chico O'Farrill, Arturo's dad and a great Cuban-American composer and arranger. Chico arranged the "Manteca Suite" for Gillespie and the band played full bore on that and several other Latin burners.
Some of my most rewarding hours were spent listening to the musicians from the Greater Philadelphia-Atlantic City area who give the Cape May fest its local flavor
Don Carn is a classically trained violinist whose fiddle sizzled during a set on which he was joined by singer Jeannie Brooks, a festival favorite. Tenorist Lenny Roberts and life-of-the-party trumpeter Eddie Morgan got way down on "After Hours," even though the hour was 3 p.m., not 3 a.m. Trumpeter Omar Kabir has a jaunty air, but fire in his horn, and sang creditably on "Downhearted Blues," casting mischievous eyes at the girls as he bemoaned: "Gave you seven children, now you want to give them back."
In sum, it was fun. Or as Junior Mance's set-ending pronouncement put it: "The best jazz festival I've ever played."
With tributes to Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis already achieved, Cape May has settled on a living legend of the flugelhorn, Clark Terry, to be guest of honor at its April 6-8 festival. Word is some very illustrious show-biz pals of the octogenarian may help him celebrate.
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