Doing Dizzy Proud
By Richard Harrington
“Wolf Trap Salutes Dizzy Gillespie” (tonight on Channels 22 and 26, from to ) could have been a dull and sober affair. But the music is too exciting – and John Birks Gillespie is too genuinely enthusiastic – for this gala, filmed last summer to celebrate Gillespie’s half-century of creativity, to be anything less than a great party. The 65 musicians who participated constitute a virtual Who’s Who of jazz (or in some cases, a Who’s Left) and it’s obvious, in both their comments and their playing, that they worship the ground Gillespie broke for them when he sowed the seeds of modern jazz with his bebop brethren, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke.
This program is part of PBS’s
“Great Performances” series, and it lives up to its subtitle: “An All-Star Tribute to the Jazz Master.” With the legendary Willis
Conover providing some context and with some well-chosen historical footage (including the only existing film of Parker and Gillespie
playing together), the Wolf Trap salute makes the case – as if it needed to be made – that Gillespie is a true giant, not merely of
jazz, but of American music. It follows his development from his signature composition, “A Night in
Among those who show up to celebrate Gillespie: Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Carter, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, Carmen McRae, Jon Hendricks. The concert itself lasted more than five hours, and director Phillip Byrd has gone with a mix of crowd pleasers and musician pleasers. For instance, “Tour de Force” features Gillespie, Marsalis, Hubbard, Jon Faddis and Vaughn Nark in some bristling unisons and scintillating exchanges. On “Oop-pop-a-da,” Gillespie rests his trumpet-with-the-upturned-bell long enough to engage in some astonishing and exhilarating scat singing with Hendricks and Moody. Other highlights include the terse “Birks Works,” a vibrant swing through Wheatleigh Hall” with Rollins and the swirling polyrhythms of “Tanga,” done by the big band. There are some introspective moments as well, including the lovely ballads “All the Things You Are” (with Peterson) and “This Is the End of a Beautiful Friendship” (with McRae).
At times, the program turns into a mutual admiration society but the music always brings things back into focus, and Gillespie manages to undermine the seriousness of the occasion, mugging at the encomiums, smiling at everyone’s solos, encouraging with his warmth, enjoying being the source of so many people’s pleasure. It’s easy to see why, in addition to his prodigious performances, he’s always been such a great teacher. At the end, everyone swarms onto the Wolf Trap stage as a 70-candle birthday cake is brought out. Gillespie does some lively improvising while the big band offers a rollicking version of “Happy Birthday.” It’s a sweet moment in a grand career.