Dizzy Gillespie at the Spotlite


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Few big bands were as flexible, innovative or influential in 1946 as Dizzy Gillespie's bebop orchestra. In the mid-1940s, most jazz bands and musicians were playing swing, a syncopated rhythmic style that had kept dance halls and record stores humming since the mid-1930s. Bebop, by contrast, had a much freer feel, requiring cat-like musical dexterity and on-the-fly creativity. Bop musicians were less concerned about pleasing dancers as they were on blowing away listeners. 

Most big-name bandleaders in 1946 excoriated bebop. They viewed it as corrosive gibberish that was too hard on the ears and poison to the wallet. What's more, a majority of swing-band players had a terrible time figuring out what they were supposed to do or how to solo convincingly in the new idiom. As one of bop's chief architects, Dizzy held a unique advantage. He had invented the secret formula, and his big band was completely fluent in bop's intricacies. Best of all, no other band in 1946 could knock off what Dizzy's orchestra was doing.

Up until now, only a small number of recordings featuring Dizzy's 1946 big band existed: All were for the Musicraft label, recorded on June 10, July 9 and November 10. And each track lasts roughly three minutes to conform to the rigid 78-rpm record format. Dizzy had tried to launch a big band in the summer of 1945, but the band's rural tour down South placed the band in African-American dance halls where locals wanted to hear regional blues, not baffling bebop. Dizzy folded his 1945 band in October before heading out to California with Charlie Parker.

With the release of Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Showtime at the Spotlite, we now have a remarkable document. Recorded at the Spotlite club on New York's 52d St., likely on June 28, 1946 (see yesterday's post), the new double CD provides a wealth of evidence confirming Gillespie's playing and leadership genius. We also hear just how difficult this music was to play and the band's frightening ability to do so. As Gillespie well knew, the more complicated the arrangements and more proficient the musicians playing them, the longer it would take mainstream bands to catch up. Take that, Harry James!

Released by Uptown Records, the same label that in 2005 issued the miraculous Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York, June 22,1 945, the Spotlite set is packed with trumpet-section fireworks and riveting solos. What makes this new CD so special is the club setting. Free from the financial and time constraints of a studio, Dizzy's band was able to comfortably play lengthy versions of its book: 'Round Midnight (6:57), The Man I Love (5:29) and Second Balcony Jump (5:01) not to mention extended versions of many others. What we wind up with are tracks with breathtaking back-to-back solos by some of bop's best band players of the day. And unlike Dizzy's big bands of 1947-49, which recorded for RCA and featured many inventive novelty numbers, his band at the Spotlite in 1946 had a more pure, unvarnished quality, a raw energy that was unmatched.

Long issued as a miserable-sounding bootleg and for years mischaracterized as a radio broadcast, the Spotlite recordings originally were cut by Jerry Newman, a college student who in the 1940s used to haul a portable disc recorder around capturing live dates with the blessing of bands and club management. Bob Sunenblick, owner of Uptown Records, obtained the original acetates from the Newman family, and the staggeringly crisp restoration was done by Ted Kendall.

It's important to note that Dizzy's passion for big bands didn't come out of thin air. His trumpet section work for Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Earl “Fatha" Hines, Lucky Millinder, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and other swing bands in just a handful of years exposed him to the best leaders, arrangers and players of the period. Dizzy also arranged for Woody Herman (1942-43), Jimmy Dorsey (1944) and most important, Boyd Raeburn [pictured], whose progressive band in 1944 was the first to record Dizzy's Night in Tunisia (originally known then as Interlude).

On Showtime at the Spotlite, what you hear is the spirit of liberation. There's the frantic freedom of tyranny's end with the close of World War II. There's the unbridled spirit of racial liberation through a new music style that belonged squarely to African-Americans. And you hear the freedom of musicians finally able to solo without the typical constraints imposed by most other bands. What made bop significant in 1946 is that most big-name bands and musicians at the time still hadn't figured out how to play it. You can hear this glee and sense of pride loud and clear in every track on the album's two discs.

After listening to these Spotlite discs, you'll also be reminded once again just how special and important Dizzy Gillespie was to jazz's development. And you'll come to the same conclusion I did: that Dizzy really can't be praised enough for bringing this music forward in both small groups and large orchestras. In this regard, Gillespie remains larger than life and still vastly under-appreciated for his enormous talent and contribution. Surely he is Louis Armstrong's equal.

And then there's the 36-page booklet featuring superb notes by legendary jazz writer Ira Gitler along with page after page of rare photos. Ira's Grammy-worthy notes are especially significant because the 79-year-old producer and educator was there at the birth of bebop. He also was at the Spotlite club in February listening to Dizzy's sextet. To have Ira's personal perspective and historical context enhances the CD's you-are-there electricity.

Another treat is Thelonious Monk on piano. Monk was the band's original keyboard player but was fired on the stage of the Apollo Theater by a fed-up Dizzy shortly after this recording was made. Monk was replaced by John Lewis after Monk returned late to the bandstand from a local bar once too often. [Photo of Monk and Dizzy: Paul Ryan]

Monk is particularly thrilling on what's surely the earliest recording of Gil Fuller's arrangement of 'Round Midnight, which owes more to I Can't Get Started than to Monk's original intentions. Hearing Monk back the Gillespie band on this track is a thrill, especially if you enjoy the Salle Pleyel version from 1948 with John Lewis on piano. Listen to Monk pound the keys almost in frustration as other soloists play louder and louder to block out his choppy style and struggle to stay on the beat. Dizzy, of course, recorded 'Round Midnight earlier, in February 1946, with a small group for Dial. But this version, for me, trumps all others.

Other highlights include a nearly five-minute Groovin' High with solos by James Moody, Dizzy and Milt Jackson. Most fascinating of all again is hearing Monk do his thing and wondering how the band ever managed to stay on tempo with his abstract impressionist and percussive style.

On Convulsions, we hear a fascinating piano solo that Ira Gitler believes was played by Milt Jackson [pictured]. At first I thought Dizzy was playing. But when I brought that up to Ira, he advised me to have a re-listen to Dizzy's playing on the Warming Up a Riff session with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in November 1946. There, Dizzy subs on piano, and his style, as Ira noted, is completely different. Milt Jackson's attack on the piano is percussive and vibes-like in delivery. “Compare what you hear on Spotlite with Milt's piano playing on other dates," Ira said. “Listen to his brief solo on the Fats Navarro-Howard McGhee Blue Note sessions. Milt was a deliberate piano player."

Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Showtime at the Spotlite is loaded with surprises and its importance cannot be overestimated. This isn't background music. You truly must pay attention and listen hard, and read the liner notes, which includes Ira's interview with Dizzy band alum Dave Burns. There's a lot more going on here than initially meets the ear or eyes. Hats off to Uptown Records' Bob Sunenblick for bringing this material into the digital age.

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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