[21 December 2004]
Why be predictable! One of the more curious aspects of the present DVD issue is that it allows actual sight of a very obscure, longtime unduly ignored traditional blues and boogie pianist actually playing. He was Dan Burley, a valuable Chicago stylist who (like most others) didn’t make money out of his music but subsisted on a day-job. Verbally more eloquent than most, he was a journalist on the Amsterdam Herald in New York, compiler of an invaluable dictionary of jive talk.
Part of the soundtrack of the film Jivin’ in Bebop appeared on an interesting CD on the Austrian Wolf label some years back, including every recording then accessible of Burley playing piano. Happily, some unissued takes, believed lost when Wolf produced the CD, have turned up and come out elsewhere.
The niceties and subtleties of his playing—and of blues styles generally—were hardly taken seriously by even a minority when the then silver-haired gent sat down to duet with an organist for this film. The fun aspects of his music were as so often better appreciated than its subtleties and identity: an absolute paradigm case!
Dizzy Gillespie wasn’t shy of fun. As for grasping the detail of Burley’s traditional music, DG was no doubt justifiably at the time detained by the spiritually relevant characteristics of his own new music at the time. That music appears here in a sort of later 1940s mainland North America equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club film. Here, though, the interlocutor, MC, emcee—or whatever you call analogue to Buena Vista’s Ry Cooder figure—has had his participation mostly excised, and there never was any of the interviewing and biodocumentary stuff (or Hawaiian guitar!) on the cine-screen translation of a stage show the whole film was.
This is an old-style staged musical revue, with the accent on the music Gillespie certainly thought was a considerable contribution to humankind. His big band was well up the programme as a distinct performer. Listening again lately to Louis Armstrong’s masterpiece “Tight Like This” stirred some reflections on the presence together of some hokum and music of the most serious. Gillespie’s music was frequently of the utmost seriousness, as when touring a genuinely all-star big band (with the recently departed James Williams on piano) he tricked the audience into singing wordless choruses of the theme of a Ba’hai hymn. He had the band filter off for the intermission while still conducting the singing, and as the singing faltered he had achieved a miraculous diminuendo. The effect—as it died out and the stage was entirely empty—was of recognising the trick and even more the sublimity of the actual musical effect.
Here we have dance routines, and the singing of Helen Humes, like Julia Lee (who was also a notable pianist), one of a few late 1920s singers to have a consistent and continuous musical career, growing with the music, which is to say jazz.
I’ve long been fond of the soundtrack item on the Burley Wolf CD in which Gillespie has arrived in Heaven and is invited to meet the great Bop, to wit Johann Sebastian Bop. He has, he says, lived for this meeting. Since he is, however, on the other side (which mercifully for us still here he didn’t in life reach until 45 years after this film) he is corrected. He has died for this moment. The music proceeds into boogie woogie of a sort some of us wouldn’t mind hearing on the other side.
I might have liked a little more spoken madness from the original theatre film, but what’s here is pretty good to be going on with, and not necessarily as a period piece or history or retro-anything. The Gillespie band has recognisable things to say, founded on the advanced musical ideas Gillespie worked over during intermissions when with the at times divinely mad Cab Calloway band. When he was in that band it recorded enough sheerly instrumental performances to allow, I think, Henri Renaud to compile an LP of sheerly musical interest from the period (c.1940). Calloway resisted what he called Gillespie’s “Chinese music”, but Gillespie went up on the theatre roof and practiced his new harmonies and lines with Milt Hinton on bass and Danny Barker on drums from the band.
The new music celebrated itself and celebrated artistic freedom, as Gillespie announced on occasion that the next number is being played in response to a request from the members of the band.
The exhilaration of Gillespie’s big band music is still a thing to hear, with a fire and texture not that often achieved even by the best of his later bands. The “new” which the music extolled wasn’t simply the music itself, it was a spirit and a hope, a prospect of a future in which Bop might have something of the musical and cultural place of Bach’s music. Whatever has to be said about technical imprecisions (of which the big white bands were incapable) let me cite the New York Philharmonic’s conductor of the time, Bruno Walter, to the effect that absolute freedom from mistakes is bought mostly at the expense of sufficient involvement in the music. Comedy and other things can conduce to inappropriate or downright wrong non-involvement. Here, however, is almost a complete work of art. There are things it doesn’t say, but it says big things worth saying now.