Dizzy Reece: From In to Out

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Bird and Modernity



DR: The '50s is a good period—so much has been going before that, in the 30s and 40s, but it came up to the '50s and the Modern Jazz Era, which is what we termed it. It came out of everything from before Louis Armstrong up to Lester Young, and here comes Charlie Parker, and he was a summation—the blues (and he loved the blues, he's Mr. Blues). So we get to a level of intelligence now, where we take it to the next level, and that's the Modern Jazz Era. That's what I've been dealing with; that's the era that I came up in and I still think it's the greatest period. Everybody's still wrestling with it. Coltrane had been through the bebop era and Charlie Parker, and then he got into his other expressions, but you can go check out his recordings with Miles Davis and you'll see the link.

AAJ: Right, and he'd come up in Dizzy Gillespie's band.

DR: Yeah, and you have to go through the modern jazz to get to another level—he stretched it out. There's a difference—with Charlie Parker, he was a finished product, and he didn't have to take it where Trane took it. He already had everything.

AAJ: Right, when you hear his solos with Jay McShann he seems almost fully formed at an early age.

DR: Oh, man, exactly—everything was packaged. He could do everything that everybody's doing now, stretching out on chord changes and modes.

AAJ: I also think of modern jazz not just in terms of stretching out chordally and harmonically, but also rhythmically, and the drummer—how the drummer was able to expand time by playing all these confluences of rhythms, and that maybe was the major change.

DR: It was a big change, and it happened with Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Sure, of course, the rhythm aspect is the whole thing—Charlie Parker played drums on the saxophone, and the whole thing is rhythm. It goes into intelligence, too—you look at the 40s and you had Aldus Huxley and Brave New World, the whole world was changing, skyscrapers were going up and the political scene was changing, and modern jazz was a reflection of everything.

AAJ: The old forms wouldn't suffice to express it.

DR: No, no, they had to keep breaking through.

AAJ: It's like how in painting, representation fell by the wayside because it just couldn't capture how people were seeing their world.

DR: Exactly, it's the same thing because as much as it's actually great, [representation is] frozen. It's like music, the sound is dynamic, it's not frozen. Picasso and everybody tried the different forms, but in music you can hear a definite shift, and that's really freedom in the music. Everybody came to Charlie Parker—Prokofiev and all the great composers would visit Birdland and check Charlie Parker out too. I was amazed at how all the old forms in classical music [were strong] and you had people like Prokofiev writing letters asking Charlie Parker how he played music. It's so basic, Charlie Parker was using the blues and the AABA forms, and the "I Got Rhythm" changes and he created so much out of that basic 12-bar blues and the American songbook. Classical music had access to this, but it was frozen in a way. Modern jazz is still going on, and we're just feeding the currents of it now. There are a few cats left around like myself, people who are in the current of it.

AAJ: As far as where contemporary music is going or has gone, I guess I feel that it's hard to—well, I don't feel like there is as much vitality in it as there seemed to be.

DR: It's been diffused. Are you speaking culturally, or the music scene?

AAJ: I'm speaking aesthetically but it all goes hand in hand.

DR: Well, of course, the artistic world has been drained—for what they are, the artists have devoted so much time and energy to it and there is no direct feedback from the populace. Now, in your generation, that's why I asked when you started—here you are, young, and you're interested in the music and you're caught up in the currents of it, and you can feel the dynamic force is lacking. Is that what you're saying?

AAJ: Yeah, partly.

DR: A lot of it's been diffused from the society, there's no feedback for the artistic giver and creative forces. It's true, and that's why you get that feeling while you're alive.

AAJ: For me, I capture slices of things that I can't necessarily experience now in the flesh. I listen to a number of people who are gone now, and it's strange.

DR: It's like you've been reincarnated, huh? I don't know, sometimes I do think like I'm reincarnated. I used to walk around on Broadway and that was my beat, Birdland, and the music was dynamic and alive and it's funny looking back now. So many musicians were alive and you could walk on Broadway and meet guys from Hollywood, everybody. All over the streets you'd hear music, and it was a different thing. It was alive, and that's what's missing. If you didn't have that period, you can feel it and you know it's missing. I had it, and I know—I was a part of that as one of the last figures on Broadway, at 52nd and Broadway, some of the energy was still there. I haven't been but once in a while, and as a matter of fact I made a documentary about it. Here you come, and you didn't even experience that, and you can feel it's missing somewhere. Of course it's missing, as a lot of the younger players now—they're great, but that slice is missing too.

AAJ: I'm not sure, but I feel it's accurate that the education system of the music, how it is passed down orally through the streets and whom you know, that it's lost in the academic situation where a lot of improvisers are coming out of music schools instead of The Music.

DR: That's why I'm talking about Broadway—you're talking about the community aspect, and that's where the music is. It's from the community, and the community ejects out. It's good to have the academic education, but that's from another level. This is why the music's great, because it came from the people as a community, and now that's why I reference this period. They used to have jazz in the schools, and all of that's been taken out. It's running another way politically and socially, and your generation is lacking [community] now, and you can feel it because it's missing, and even if you don't know anything about it, you can tell that something is not there.

AAJ: Even, I suppose, like pop or rock music, when it was first coming out, it had this vitality to it. It seems like people have an esthetic or poetic apathy, where you hear music from that genre now, people are very blasé about it, rather than that this is something that needs to be done, a conviction in making even that sort of music. This is, I guess, why popular music —

DR: It's an expression of the community, whether it's pop or rock or whatever.

AAJ: And if the community is blasé, then the music will follow it.

DR: The whole world is blasé, everything is blasé, and I've been through that in my life, and your generation has reaped the "benefits." That's why I'm interested in speaking to you, as it's now several decades from when I started, and here you are in the fruits of the music, and it has captured your imagination. I could have been talking to a veteran critic, but I'm interested in your angle. This is what you're dealing with now.

AAJ: It's funny too, because the AAJ-New York paper, most of the staff is under 40, and a lot between the ages of 25 and 35.

DR: That's interesting, and encouraging. That's why I'm interested in doing this, and I'm not into talking that much [laughs], but from my connection with the paper, I realize this and I'm encouraged. In this decade, you're still interested in this music, and I suppose that's part of it. I'm trying to capture the essence of it, and you're looking for the essence of it, but it's been diffused. Now it's mostly a microcosm, it's one and one.

AAJ: If you read an old Downbeat or something, you read the same thing—that bebop was diffusing the jazz that came before, and it's funny to me that a lot of critics thought it was negative.

DR: Well, of course—it was anti-everything. To break through into this Brave New World of Huxley, everything was changing, Picasso and Hemingway, it's all related to Charlie Parker and that period. A lot of people resisted, and they're still resisting it. It commands a different intelligence and it's another level of the body and mind. We can play as much free jazz and as much technically—some of the cats are very technical—but nobody plays faster than Charlie Parker today. Piano players, anybody innovative, they really captured it already. We're still trying to take it to another level, but it's already there. It's like heaven—heaven is already there, but everybody's trying to get to heaven, and it's not a "New Thing," it's already there. So that modern jazz field with Bird, that new status with painters and the arts and everything, that's established. The classical period—all the fruits of technology that we've seen, high tech and everything, all that was expressed already in the music—and things to come, it's all here now. We're working around it and the music has really expressed that and it's still expressing it.

AAJ: If the music expressed it already, for me coming up in this period now, what the music foreshadowed I'm not sure I like.

DR: No, of course there is always the shadow and the substance. Technology is the reality, but then there is the soul. That's why we have to talk about soul. That's the other side of it. Of course you've got the material, but something else supports the material. This is what you're talking about, right? It's called spirit, it's called soul, whatever, that's the essence, and I call it the Essence. Of course you don't like [technology], because it's uncomfortable, it's the shadow of the real thing, and it's okay. It provides civilization and amenities, but it really doesn't add anything to your soul. It's still not comfortable, and really people are still not comfortable with high tech, but that's a part of nature. There it is, you deal with it, and you still have to deal with your soul.

AAJ: Technology is just a tool.

DR: Of course, but what you see is that it diffuses too, and it sucks your soul. With technology you have to pay a price, and you pay with your soul for technology as much as you allow it and can deal with it. Humanity pays such a price—we spill so much blood for such a little. It's like squeezing an orange—you get so little juice for all that squeezing. We put out all this high tech, but that's the way of humanity. So this is why the artists and people with a little soul are trying to create and the creative force is why we are here, to try and keep the balance. That balance of stuff is a big Nintendo game [AAJ and DR laugh] and if you want to play that game, you've got to look after your soul. That's why we have so many psychiatrists and everything. Everybody has a void, an inner void, and they are looking for substance, but high tech doesn't give you substance. We pay with our soul for that.

AAJ: It's so easy to get caught up with the convenience of things, too.

DR: It's a jungle, and that's what makes you grow, because you have to fight it like chopping away through the jungle. These things are set up for your muscles, mentally, and you have to situate your life just to get a little bit of shalom, peace, you got to get so much. But that's life, and you extract that from it, that's for your growth. That's why you're speaking with me now. Hopefully you try to extract what you can—of course, there is the world and there is the individual. It's you against the world, and although each individual makes up the world, it's always the individual against the world.

AAJ: Right, because it's your experience of the world.

DR: Of course, this is why you have the resistance to music—like you said, modern jazz diffused. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy, all the politics were against modern jazz. J. Edgar Hoover was against modern jazz musicians and [thought] they were communists, and if you had free thoughts, they threw you out. You've heard about McCarthy; it was all politics, and the music was a free sort of speaking and they tried to curtail it.

AAJ: I feel like I'm able to, for better or for worse, live through the exact same thing now with the political scene, although now it's not communists, but I guess even then it was a blanket term for intellectuals, like intellectualism is being shunned politically.

DR: It was always a fight—it's not new—that's why artists have had to struggle with politics. It starts with oneself and one's family and community. It's always one against the community, when one is trying to take it to another level. What is an example of a leader? That's why you always have a leader, and now people are looking for leadership. That's gone from the intelligentsia, when you look at it, you've got a lot of academia and a lot of politics, but real spiritual leadership... using the term of intellectual leadership, of course, there's always a fight against that. The whole Bible story and everything is about that. It's about intelligence and leadership qualities on every level. It's lacking in many respects, and that's why there is a void and people are looking for spirituality. We're looking for ourselves and what one can fill oneself with. So, this is what I deal with in music, this is our calling—for me personally and my community. Nobody is an island; we live together and it all reflects upon one another. I was always a community person, and that's why I like to talk about my lifestyle in New York since I've lived there (I've been an American citizen for about forty years, ever since I've been here).

The music—well there were so many other bad things that went down politically, racism, everything in trying to build a civilized society, but the music was always telling the story, and telling it truthfully as it came, raw. The music was always raw, it's expressing life as it was and politically [people] couldn't deal with that. There's always a resistance that gets us through modern jazz and modern music, and it's still being resisted. That's why it's been pulled out of the political system, out of the schools and the educational system.

AAJ: Pulled off the radio...

DR: Everything, of course, it's like the conscious has been pulled out of the consciousness, the society, the community, and the world at large. So this is what we get. Did you grow up with the Voice of America?

AAJ: No, I didn't.

DR: Willis Conover was the host. That was the biggest propaganda machine America had during the so-called Cold War with Russia, the big voice. It was the voice of jazz, and everybody was played, and it won over a lot of people from the so-called Eastern Bloc. It was the biggest tool, and it was great—the voice of jazz was the voice of America.

AAJ: I've been reading about jazz in East Germany and Eastern Europe lately, and it's very interesting.

DR: Jazz was always the crusading voice, and it's a cry. All of humanity has that blues cry, so America was chosen for the modern world, and this is the modern form of the blues. We've got the modern intelligence, which goes back to Charlie Parker as far as I'm concerned. The interest and intelligence is incredible, really, the construction—you can dissect it and analyze it and check it out—it's everything.

AAJ: In the past several years I've been really curious about the European improvisers, and where they are coming from in their contribution to the music, and I get the feeling that London at the time you were living there in the '50s didn't really have it for you musically.

DR: No, jazz has been in Europe for a long time. When I started to research it, I found that jazz musicians had been going to Europe for a thousand years. Seriously, during the time of Beethoven and in Vienna, they used to use black musicians from America. One composer named Hightower, I think, was a composer who was African-American. He and Beethoven used to hang out in the cafés, and he used to write music for Beethoven. They were like the jazz cats then, this is known and you can research it. Black musicians and jazz have been going for thousands of years, seriously, the troubadours up from Africa came all the way down through the classical period. There was a lot of input from Spain, from Italian composers mixed with the Germans, it's all a mix. Rome was the New York of that time—everything met there, all the influences. New York is the modern world, and the music as far as I'm concerned really reflects that. Modern jazz in Europe is old, and in Japan—they've had jazz in Japan since the '20s, and maybe you'd have someone going into a little fishing village or a hamlet in Japan playing jazz in the 1800s. It's been going on quite a while, and people talk now about expatriates as a modern thing, and Black musicians have been going [there forever]—it's a big mix. This was always a big thing, Germans had propaganda against jazz. You should read about Berlin, where it was taboo, and it was the voice.

So that takes things right up to Now, this moment in time, and they're still resisting. Coltrane is one thing; Trane brought it to a period [where he] excited a religious fervor, if you want to take it in that step. But they were ready for that, and yet Charlie Parker and the intelligence—if you want to get right to the nitty-gritty, from the McShann band, and when I say Charlie Parker, I'm involving the whole retinue of the innovators. You can start with Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, and the whole pantheon, but Bird brings it right up to now. He was in rapport with all the painters, everybody, and I've been through that period as well. I used to sit with all the painters in Paris in the '50s, and the new scene in Paris with the revolution. There was a revolution in Jamaica, too—you read all of that, right? I was in Paris and used to sit with all the revolutionaries, North Africa, the violence—I was in the middle of all that stuff, twice. At St. Germaine with the students and the violence, and in New York with Woodstock, all of it.

AAJ: You were in Paris in the late '60s, after the Left Bank, right?

DR: I went through all of that—there were reports from the news, and I was there with the cats. That was the revolution, race riots in Paris, taking it right up to Now. I came to New York to see what was happening and put it together in a total package, and it's quite interesting and deep, but it's interesting to converse with you and your generation about what went down before.

Everything has pretty much diffused, and that's why I tell you it's a micro-macro, a one-on-one, you got a reservoir to draw from and you might get a little bit from me and people who still have some essence. That's why everybody is still reading and looking and I've been through all of that. I've read something like thirty thousand books, and I used to read voraciously. When I was in London and when I was a boy, I used to read all the heavy books—my mother put the first metaphysical books in my hand. I've been reading on flying saucers and everything, I read on everything that needs to be read.

AAJ: And you've written a number of tomes, too, right?

DR: I've got a trunk full of writings, the real stuff on jazz and what it is. It started in Louisiana, but my stuff goes way back to the cosmos and the essence of the soul, what it is. I suppose everybody knows this innately, we all know this, but my level of imagination started when I was very young, and I got aware of this and did a lot of reading. I read everything—all the poets, the English poets, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare, I used to read them in school. I read everything, from UFOs to right now, and that's what it takes, spending hours reading. I've been through the philosophies and everything, the Vedas, the Upanishads, all the Indian religions, the African religions, the Scandinavians [Swedenborg], everything, and I've come full circle on what it is and what it takes. Coming back to the reality of America, it all accumulated in the New World. That's why we're here and why you were born and are into it, and it's the New World. That was always my outlook and that's why I appreciate it, and that's why New York—every city I've lived, I was brought up in Jamaica and I lived in Kingston, right downtown in the middle of the metropolitan area and that community, and when I went to England and London it was the same thing. Paris, New York, I was always downtown. It was the city, it was dynamic, and I'm always right there. I ended up in New York, and it's the finishing school for everything, from every part of the globe.

AAJ: And it still is...

DR: In a way, of course. That's the full gamut and the essence of what I have accumulated. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


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