Dizzy Gillespie is one of the most important figures in jazz, period. An innovative and original trumpet player, prolific composer, musical visionary, generous teacher and confidante of other musicians, Gillespie listened carefully to music wherever he found it, sought to understand it, and often incorporated it into his own work. He is often acknowledged as one of the first modern jazz musicians to recognize and celebrate the influence of Latin and Caribbean music on jazz. Yet his contributions have often been overshadowed by the general belief that Charlie Parker was the real genius behind the development of bebop. Because of his sense of humor and his trademark beret and goatee (and later his upward-tipped horn bell), Gillespie was often thought of as a jester by the general public. Few who are not jazz devotees realize that Gillespie later moved on to work with Latin-flavored jazz and big bands that didn’t sound much like his groundbreaking work with Parker.
Gillespie himself didn’t seem to worry much about the credit he did or didn’t get for the bop revolution: “History avenges itself, and this is history, the history of music,” he once said. “Whether I get the recognition now, it will all come out. Because the records are out and the records are . . . well, a matter of record.” The fact is, without Gillespie’s tireless efforts to promote bebop to the public and to help other musicians understand what he and Parker were doing, bebop may very well have been seen as an aberration and ignored. The evidence on Savoy Jazz’ three-CD set Dizzy Gillespie: Odyssey 1945-1952 certainly supports the argument that Dizzy was an innovator, and masterful trumpet player, and a man who was unlikely to sit still and rest on his laurels.
The first group of sessions on this set are credited to the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet and the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Quintet. “Blue ‘N’ Boogie” features, not Parker, but a 21-year old Dexter Gordon, who became one of bebop’s most persuasive tenor men and who, along with Wardell Gray, provided a crucial link between the loping phrasing of Lester Young and the work of bebop musicians. Tracks two through eight all feature Parker along with Gillespie and pure bop rhythm sections that include, variously, Slam Stewart, Cozy Cole, pianist Al Haig, and Sid Catlett. They were recorded for the independent Guild record label, a small outfit that sprang up thanks to the recording ban imposed by the Musicians Union in 1942.
Reissue producer Orrin Keepnews has restored these recordings to excellent sound quality (along with help from Dan Morgenstern and Steven Lasker, as he mentions in his Producer’s Note), performing work akin to that being done by film archivists who’ve saved many classic films from the last half-century. This is bebop in its purest form, as close to its inception as it is possible for today’s audience to hear. Gillespie had a hand in the composition of most of these classic tunes—“Groovin’ High”, “Dizzy Atmosphere”, “Salt Peanuts”, and “Shaw ‘Nuff”.
Of course, hearing Parker’s solos again is a blast of fresh air as well, and the real balance between Parker and Gillespie is very much in evidence here. Gillespie’s ability to play high notes and create dramatic runs sometimes obscure the fact that he is playing solos every bit as harmonically complex as Parker’s, but the two musicians are obviously very much in synch, the perfect musical team. The unison work of the duo on the eye-popping “Shaw ‘Nuff” is incredible, as are the solos, where Diz one-ups Bird.
The rest of the first disc shows Dizzy backing vocalist Albinia Jones with Don Byas’ Swing Seven , leading a bop sextet with altoist Sonny Stitt, and playing with various big band aggregations. “Interlude (A Night in Tunisia)”, recorded by the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra, is a sharp big band arrangement by Gillespie, who also plays the only notable solo. Parker returns for four tracks recorded with Slim Gaillard and His Orchestra. These are a lot of fun, and both Gillespie and Parker can be heard thoroughly enjoying themselves on these dates.
Most of disc two is given over to big band performances. Though the first 10 tracks are recorded in 1946, not long after the first public exposure to bebop, Gillespie is already moving into new territory, attempting to fuse the energy and harmonic twists of bop to the big band format. This was something Gillespie never ceased to do, as big bands were in his blood. Unfortunately, by the 1950s it was not economically feasible for many big bands to stay on the road (Count Basie and Duke Ellington being two exceptions, though even Basie had to take a break and regroup). The first six tracks on Disc Two feature the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, which was later signed to RCA Victor and recorded until early 1950. After that Gillespie never had another permanent big band, though there were some tours.
The tracks presented here give a good indication of the band’s strengths, and it seems a real shame that there couldn’t have been more. “One Bass Hit”, “Ray’s Idea” (both co-written by the inimitable Ray Brown) and “Things to Come” (recently recorded by the Gillespie Alumni Band) are very hot arrangements with top of the line solos from Gillespie. The tracks (seven through 10) from Ray Brown’s All Stars feature a young James Moody, and are the only tracks on the collection originally recorded for the Savoy label (the others came from a variety of smaller labels and ended up in the Savoy catalog through sale, acquisition, and other means). The sessions are straightforward blowing sessions with little in the way of arrangement or other niceties. Gillespie then returns to the Johnny Richards fold on a series of tracks (11 through 18) that were done on the West Coast for the Discovery label.
The end of disc two and all of disc three is given over to Gillespie-led quintet and sextet dates that featured many musicians who would become well known jazz artists throughout the ‘50s and beyond. The last three tracks of disc two offer Kenny Burrell on guitar with Percy Heath holding down the drum kit and John Coltrane on both alto and tenor sax. Disc three offers a sextet that includes J.J. Johnson and Art Blakey, a quintet session with Wynton Kelly at the piano, and a notable session with violinist Stuff Smith and Milt Jackson doing some organ work. The arrangement of “Caravan” (heard here in both the master and alternate take) is pretty modern, making use of violin and baritone sax doubling on the melody, then playing an almost modal figure behind Gillespie’s trumpet work.
While this set is limited to material from Savoy’s catalog, and in that sense is not anything like a comprehensive look at Gillespie’s activities during these years, it is definitely comprehensive in its portrayal of the various settings that the up and coming trumpeter found himself. It also indicates the wide range of Gillespie’s musical interests and the reasons for his continued appeal beyond the initial thrust of bebop: His inventiveness, good humor, and ability to acquit himself well in almost any musical setting. For both those not familiar with Gillespie’s work during this period this set is an excellent introduction; for those who have sampled his output from this period it is a fine collection, with the tracks digitally transferred from original master tapes, that should not be passed by.