This weekend we celebrated the music and spirit of Dizzy Gillespie in all of 3 of our concert spaces
This weekend we celebrated the music and spirit of Dizzy Gillespie in all of 3 of our concert spaces in the house of swing. In Rose Theater, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed a selection of his masterworks for the large ensemble led by Vincent Gardner. Carlos Henriquez led a stellar all-star ensemble in the Appel Room in the Latin side of Dizzy’s canon. And in the club, trumpeters Bruce Harris and Theo Croker both led groups dealing with aspects of Dizzy’s small group innovations.
The Hall was buzzing and musicians from all over the world shared the stages to celebrate a life that was dedicated to bringing cultures together. During the concert, Vincent recalled New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.‘s successful advocacy for Dizzy’s orchestra to represent the cultural interest of the U.S. abroad.
It was 1956, and the State Department understood that Gillespie, then almost 40 years old, would bring much more than the latest musical entertainment to regions of the world that were not necessarily fans of US policy. They knew that Mr. Gillespie, himself a recipient of some good old down-home early to mid 20th century South Carolina racism, was at odds with some of those same policies, but hoped that he would reveal the best of the American culture with a virtuosic, soulful, cosmopolitan music and an embracing spirit. He did not disappoint.
The witness accounts and photos from that tour testify to the quality and passion of Dizzy’s participation. He can be seen everywhere, in all kinds of native dress, playing with local musicians in all types of circumstances. He also came home with new rhythms and melodies from these countries and employed musicians he had met there to improve his music and enrich the gene pool of jazz.
On the Rose Theater stage, Vincent described how Cuban musical genius Mario Bauza inspired Dizzy to learn Afro-Cuban music and encouraged him to hire Cuban conguero Chano Pozo (which led to the invention of Cu-bop), while next store in The Appel Room, Carlos, conguero and sonero Pedrito Martinez, Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana and other fantastic musicians from across the Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Carribean diaspora, were also playing Dizzy’s Afro-Latin music with a current and infectious accent.
All of this music made me think of master musician, the late John Lewis, telling me that, at that time, he didn’t know how he felt about Dizzy playing so much Afro-Cuban music. The danger, he felt, was that jazz music which was always struggling for an audience, and spoke to a cultural interest that was counter to the mainstream direction of our country, was rapidly losing its dance community. He also firmly believed that swinging was a very very subtle and nuanced rhythmic approach that was not only misunderstood, but required a lot of nurturing, and could be easily discarded.
Now, Mr. Lewis was as considerate, worldly and “untribal” a person as you could imagine, so he was not presenting some supremely prejudiced world viewpoint in code. He spoke with the deepest respect about the musicians and dancers in that tradition. His viewpoint was not a cultural critique, rather an expression of genuine concern for the future of a musical approach that he deeply loved. He knew that the Afro-Latin styles were ascendant, had virtuosic and dedicated musicians, a loyal and enthusiastic audience of listeners and dancers (of all types) who couldn’t wait to get on the floor.
His concern, in 1947, was that jazz would eventually be replaced by the infectious Latin tinge on jazz bandstands.
He was actually seeing the future of jazz festivals, which have replaced jazz with every type of back beat and rhythm (except swing) under the banner of jazz.
And you better not say shit, or even imply that jazz has an identity, or you’ll be called a bunch of bad names because the integrity of corruption must be defended. It’s older than the hemlocking of Socrates.
At the same time, I was fortunate to share some meals in the home of the great Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, creator of the greatest masterpiece in Afro-Cuban Jazz— the Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, as well as many many great arrangements of in all styles of jazz. He observed that much of the artistic energy towards integrating Latin and jazz music gave way to commercialization, and that the actual desire to engage in the struggle to achieve the balance between the two approaches just faded away. He once told me, “It seems that in this country, we try to come together, but the elements that keep us apart make it impossible to sustain the togetherness.”
Today, both styles are in need of new and careful re-playing and re-listening. We still struggle to find the equilibrium required to effectively integrate what Dizzy and Chico did so both successfully and artfully. They left a great blueprint for us. Happily and thoughtfully, we were all in the house this weekend trying to make it happen.