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The New York Times

February 26, 1988



TV Weekend


Salute to Dizzy Gillespie




     Timed to coincide with Black History Month, public television’s “Great Performances” is presenting – tonight at 9 o’clock on Channel 13 –  “Wolf Trap Salutes Dizzy Gillespie: An All-Star Tribute to the Jazz Master.” The 90-minute special includes highlights from a concert performed last June before a full house at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va.

     The event is billed as a celebration of Mr. Gillespie’s 70th birthday.  There is even a cake and a special Lalo Schifrin arrangement of “Happy Birthday” for the occasion.  Several reference books, however, insist that John Birks Gillespie was born in South Carolina in October 1917.  The issue is finessed nicely for television when Willis Conover, the narrator, speaks of a tribute to the musician’s “70th birthday year.”

     Tucked in between the music performances are interviews with Mr. Gillespie and several of his friends and colleagues, in addition to archival film footage arrange in tidy, though not terribly informative biographical sequences.  There is Dizzy – the name stems from his youthful cutup years – leading his own band in the early 1940s after having played with orchestras led by, among many others, Cab Calloway and Earl Hines.  Later he can be seen playing duets with Charlie Parker, another major figure in the development of be-bop, and Louis Armstrong, who rarely failed to criticize the new jazz form.

     Little mention is made of the strong opposition that initially greeted the new Gillespie sounds.  Most critics and even many fellow musicians were not amused.  But by 1948, the Gillespie group was being named band of the year by Metronome magazine.  And Mr. Gillespie found that he had an international fan club.  He was the first jazz artist to be sent abroad under the auspices of the United States Government.  The be-bop fashion peaked in the mid-1950's, but Mr. Gillespie has gone on, steadily rising to become one of the grand masters of the jazz scene.

    Although subdued a notch or two, the basic Gillespie personality remains intact.  He still clearly enjoys performing, occasionally breaking into a signature shimmy.  He openly loves his fellow musicians.  And the feeling is mutual.  Several are on hand to talk about Mr. Gillespie’s generosity as both performer and teacher.  Carmen McRae, the singer, takes exception to his nickname.  “He is dizzy like a fox,” she notes with affection.

     The television special, produced by John T. Potthast and directed by Phillip Byrd, offers a choice selection of material from the Gillespie spectrum.  The program ranges from the familiar theme number of “A Night in Tunisia” to a to a sensationally driving duet with the superb saxophonist Sonny Rollins. “Fiesta Mojo” illustrates the influence of Afro-Cuban rhythms on Mr. Gillespie’s work, ending with a percussion explosion detonated by Nicky Marrerro, Candido, Mongo Santamaria and Ignacio Berroa.

     For changes of pace, Mr. Gillespie offers two gentle ballad interpretations, “All the Things you Are,” with the pianist Oscar Peterson, and “This is the End of a Beautiful Friendship,” with Ms. McRae singing and playing piano.  This is, in short, a splendid salute.  Among the other fine musicians in attendance are Benny Carter, Jon Faddis, Dave Valentin, Freddie Hubbard, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones and Wynton Marsalis.  There is no need to wait for Black History Month as an excuse to savor this level of quality.