By Devon Wendell
I simply cannot write about jazz or music in general without doing a piece on Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. After all, these pieces are written out of love, and Bird and Dizzy were my initial introduction to the world of jazz and possibly still my favorites of all time.
These two men did more than lay down the framework for the music that would come to be known as bebop. They were the true prophets of modern jazz. I hear everything in the music of Bird and Dizzy: from the big band defined Swing era jazz, where the rules of the game were changed, to the future of jazz after the bebop revolution, from hard-bop to the avant-garde all at once. They did it all and they did it before anyone else. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played together there was, and still is nothing more exhilarating and inspiring.
When I first heard those classic Charlie Parker sides on Dial, Savoy, and Verve (Often with Dizzy) in high school, I was forever transformed. And then you have the live material which, at its best, surpasses anything these two men laid down in the studio, which is saying a lot.
September 29th, 1947 was Dizzy’s night at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was given the chance to showcase his dynamic and incredible chemistry with Charlie Parker as well as his larger than life big band of that year. Dizzy is joined by Bird on five compositions only: “A Night In Tunisia,” “Dizzy Atmosphere,” ‘Groovin’ High,” “Confirmation” and “Koko.” Parker and Gillespie are accompanied by John Lewis, piano, Al McKibbon, bass, and Joe Harris on drums.
Although the drums were recorded too loud and John Lewis’ piano is almost completely inaudible, this is one of the most frighteningly brilliant live performances I’ve ever heard.
Bird’s playing is so virtuosic, so aggressive and inspired that there’s an almost violent quality to it. This is hard, unapologetic genius that cannot be matched. It’s difficult to believe this amazing music could come from a mere mortal and from an alto saxophone. This is music from another dimension. I’ve never heard Bird blow like this. Those “sheets of sound” that are synonymous with John Coltrane were already in place when Bird picked up his horn. This performance is why I and many others obsessed with Bird often hear post-Parker soloists and think “gee, that was already done by Bird.” And Dizzy Gillespie is on that same level of brilliance on this cool autumn night in New York. Arguably, no one had Dizzy’s range, speed, and fluidity at that time on the trumpet. These five pieces are worth the price of this record alone. If you think you know what these two masters could do based on their studio work, wait until you hear this.
After the five performances with Bird, Gillespie takes the stage with his fantastic big band, consisting of Elmon Wright, Mathew McKay, Dave Burns, and Ray Orr, trumpets, Taswell Baird and William Shepherd, trombones, John Brown and Howard Johnson, alto saxes, James Moody and Joe Gayles, tenor saxes, Cecile Payne, baritone sax, Milt Jackson, vibes, John Lewis, piano, Al McKibbon, bass, Joe Harris, drums, Chano Pozo, congas, Lorenzo Salan, bongos, and Kenny Hagood on vocals.
Is this for real? Just look at this incredible lineup of musicians. I can’t fathom a night of music like this.
Dizzy was able to transform the language of bebop into a big band sound like nobody else. On this particular rendition of Tadd Dameron’s “Cool Breeze” you hear traces of Dizzy’s “Disorder At The Border” and what would later become Tadd Dameron’s “The Squirrel.” The Afro-Cuban flavored take on “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” cooks like nobody’s business as does “One Bass Hit,” “Salt Peanuts” and “Hot House.” These arrangements by Dizzy and Gil Fuller are very different from the ones Dizzy played with Bird in a quintet setting. John Brown’s alto sax soloing is tender yet hard swinging. Taswell Baird and William Shepherd play brief but thematic trombone solos throughout this portion of the show. Although you can hear a little bit of Don Byas’s influence on some of his playing, James Moody had already established one of the most eloquent and gorgeous tenor saxophone styles in jazz by this time and he sounds fantastic here.
At the center of it all is Dizzy. “Nearness” is a supreme ballad and one of the most intimate and lyrical trumpet performances of Dizzy’s career. And life just couldn’t be better than hearing Dizzy’s trumpet lines dance around the Latin percussion of the great Chano Pozo and Lorenzo Salan on “Cubana-Be, Cubana-Bop.” The band lays out and it’s just Dizzy’s trumpet with these two incredible percussionists. This is a performance that will stay with you forever.
The rich textures and complex arrangements of Fuller and Gillespie were ground breaking. That contrary motion, slick and punctuated horn hooks, polyrhythmic percussion, humor, and jubilance are all there in the timeless glory of such gems as “Toccata For Trumpet,” “Oop-Pop-A-Da” and the whirlwind version of “Things To Come.” Unfortunately Milt “Bags” Jackson’s vibes were not miked during this performance but this was 1947 after all. Dizzy does most of the soloing on these pieces but James Moody’s warm and gentle tone matched with his imaginative phrasing on “Oop-Pop-A-Da” makes it a true highlight of the entire performance as does the playful scat vocals of Kenny Hagood and Dizzy.
Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie:Diz ‘N Bird At Carnegie Hall should be studied by music lovers of all genres. Here you get to witness many of the different and revolutionary sides of Dizzy Gillespie. You also get to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as many have never experienced before. An album like this is why I live for this music and write about it with every fiber of my being.