[6 October 2005]
I saw this film long ago, and a lot of it remained in memory. Twenty years ago, past his absolute best playing but still so amazing a trumpeter as to forbid ever taking that best for granted, Dizzy Gillespie somehow managed to get to Cuba with a band to play in a Havana jazz festival. His visit was filmed fairly extensively, with sections of him sitting at ease, delivering inevitably informal commentary and reminiscence.
An early reaction to seeing the film again is appreciation of how good a clarinetist Sayyd Abdul Al-Kabyyr could be. What’s happened to him? He plays some baritone sax too on the long concert excerpts here, wonderful with mind-boggling flights. His Arturo Sandoval impersonation ends with something which is (not in the sense of a sound on the instrument) an even bigger hoot. I remembered the guy as mightily impressive in the Johnny Hodges alto saxophone features as a member of maybe the last Duke Ellington Orchestra directed by Mercer Ellington. He’d a brother in that band playing trombone—it was wonderful, at least one gig on its European tour was recorded, and maybe there’s more of the concert drawn from here, where either the trombonist plays drums or there’s been another very musical family too long secret.
Walter Davis Jr. and I first saw this film not long before his untimely demise. Twenty years ago he was recording just enough, often solo, to demonstrate that he was a neglected master. Here he plays a lot of wonderful piano, enhanced by his joyous jovial demeanour. Guesting with the same band Sandoval plays some trumpet on the edge of showing off—hence the saxophonist’s burlesque—but always appropriately. He turns up elsewhere, providing the right hand work to Gillespie’s left on a piano blues enhancing what Gillespie has to say about blues and Charlie Parker qua blues player. The young Gonzalo Rubacalba uses both hands in some jamming with Gillespie, all of which is enough to commend purchase of the DVD. There’s enough music to commend owning the CD, it’s not just a heart-warming and almost mind-blowing not-to-be-missed documentary.
That important bit of the reviewer’s work done, now the documentary.
Some of the main themes have been aired a little of late in print, in obituaries of Al McGibbon (1919-2005), besides Ray Brown, an important bassist in Gillespie’s later 1940s big bands, and also in bebop generally. McGibbon has been quoted about working with the astonishing Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo, whose two years of life in New York had a huge impact. He spoke almost no English, Gillespie recalls in a section of the film showing the visit he made to Chano’s plump and elderly sister. It’s a moving enough scene, especially for Gillespie, looking at a battered old photo. He asks, not that articulately, about the rumour that Chano’s shocking murder was some kind of punishment for—allegedly—his having run off with funds saved up by a club in the way that impoverished Jews might assemble a kitty to fund a bar-mitzvah. The unsophisticated awkward question gets the negative answer he hoped he’d hear.
This is the Gillespie who when he arrived in Africa ran after a lady who recoiled at his attempt to photograph her. He wanted the photo because she was the double of his Aunt Mary. Like Al McKibbon he saw Cuba as an area in which African music had been less suppressed than among slaves in the USA. There are dancers, there are drummers, Gillespie trying his hand with them, and there are the rural scenes which remind him of his native South Carolina, from whose imprisoning social conditions he escaped as soon as he could. It was home, but the social, political, and economic conditions were dire. Rural Cuba feels more like home than does New York.
Early in the film he is received by Fidel Castro, whom Gillespie makes sound like a cultured Marxist somewhat on the E.J. Hobsbawm model (Hobsbawm, who wrote on jazz under the nom-de-plume Francis Newton, taken from an earlier very great trumpeter). Castro has told him, Gillespie reports in more ruminations about the African-American continuous north, south, and west of the Caribbean, that populations with the same African culture and religion were carried as slaves into both Cuba and South Carolina. I don’t have to hand my copy of Marshall W. Stearns’s The Story of Jazz, but that’s the sort of question that fascinating old book discusses. The name Gillespie is Scottish (DG used the fact for fun when playing in Scotland), and the sort of Protestantism which prevailed in Carolina produced a native blues music nearer to European harmonic orthodoxy than most. In the later 1940s the difference from Cuba certainly fired Gillespie to explore, just as he was enthused by the blues of Kansas City musicians, Parker, and Hot Lips Page.
He remembers his wife’s irritation after a broadcast interview. He’d been asked if he played from the diaphragm and replied that he played from lower, and behinder: the tightening of the anal sphincter precedes the operative tightening of the diaphragm, he said, not in quite those words. Hence his wife’s annoyance. There are more ruminations on Africa, and there are cigars like the one he was given by Castro: one of mighty length in evidence during a Cuban TV interview. There’s onstage madness, or maybe just the sheer joy in the sort of vocalisation Chano performed on that stupendous “Cubano Be…Cubano Bop” recording—arranged by George Russell and the fountainhead of all his later big band music came from. If you don’t get all the allusions and references in DG’s patter, you might be tempted to mug up on the background data. Its title refers to the 1940s classic composition “A Night in Tunisia”, and Gillespie talks about how the theme came to him (we also hear one of the legends of how he came to play a trumpet with an upward-directed bell). The title “A Night in Tunisia” is a kind of exotic fancy. The phrase “A Night in Havana” implies substantial foundations. Home!
Gillespie’s comparison with the shabby Havana he is driven through, with what he remembers of Batista Cuba before Castro and the revolution, has the same sort of provocation as the things Paul Robeson remarked on in comparing European experience favourably with racist old New York. Havana was now quiet, and all the vice things run to under bad circumstances, and had run to as is well known in pre-Castro Cuba, had gone. It may not be a convincing argument for communism, but its does say something!