By one of those unlikely but common coincidences of everyday life, the year 2013 is drawing to a close at the same time this column is approaching a milestone: Review number 100, which will appear here on January 4, 2014.
As the century mark approaches, I find myself thinking, not for the first time, about just how far I want to go with these little exercises. And exercises is exactly what these were in the beginning; something to keep me writing, something, anything, every week, until I made up my mind if I was going to resume writing fiction or not.
The jury is still out on my fiction writing and, ironically, this column is part of the reason. When you work a full time, 40-hour a week day job, finding the time to do the research necessary for a weekly column like this is a major challenge. Trying to write a short story or novel at the same time has, for me, so far, proven problematic.
I enjoy writing this column, for the most part, although there have been weeks when I dreaded it and really would rather have been doing something else. But this is no longer just a writing exercise for me.
For a while now I have seen this as a way for me to give a little something back. When I first began doing “Saturday Night Jazz” on KMHD back on March 16, 2002, I was a glorified listener who was still learning the music. You could say I was “Fanboy Al,” but with my own radio show! Every Saturday night show was a learning experience for me, usually in more ways than one, and I took my listeners to school with me.
Of necessity, I learned quickly. About the music, and especially about the musicians, many of whom I had never heard of despite having listened to KMHD for a number of years before finally going on the air there.
Many of those artists whom I had not heard of before are the very same people I have written about here. Gene Harris, for one. Jack McDuff, for another. Michael Kaeshammer. Benny Carter. Reggie Houston. Cameron Mizell. Ken Peplowski. John Beasley. Alvin Queen. Neil Swainson. Geoff Lapp. Beverly Ritz.
I’m not trying to say that these artists were not played on KMHD before me (although that is true for at least two and maybe three of them.) I’m saying that if they were, I did not hear them.
[NOTE: Please forgive the poor formatting on those pages. I am still working my way through correcting the formatting errors that were induced when I transferred the articles from the original site on blogspot.]
Writing this column more or less every week has been, in my own small way, an attempt to expose these wonderful musicians and their music to a larger audience.
One source of frustration has been the fact that reader response has been virtually nil. Since moving to WordPress over 20 people have subscribed to the blog, a fact that I do appreciate greatly. But as for reader comments, Beverly Ritz and one or two others are the only folks who have bothered.
And maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t really know.
What I do know is that when I sit down to write it, I intend to do my humble best to make review number 100 worthy of the special place it will occupy. Beyond that, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. 100 is a nice, big, round number. It’s also a lot higher than I ever expected to reach when I began doing this. Perhaps it will also be a good number to bow out on.
I will tell you this much: Like this week’s review, number 100 is going to be about someone who has not been written about here before. Which leaves a lot of wiggle room! Heh. J
Enough of that. On to this week’s review!
Dizzy Gillespie was born October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina. He died on January 6, 1993 in Englewood, New Jersey. When he was still a young boy he taught himself how to play the trombone. Then at age 12 he switched to the trumpet.
Quoting from Loren Schoenberg’s liner notes for the Verve Master Edition re-release of “Sonny Side Up,” “…before he [Gillespie] ever met his future soulmate [Charlie Parker] from Kansas City, he had played with and learned from Chu Berry, Don Byas, Hershel Evans, Ben Webster, and Lester Young.”
During his long career, Gillespie also worked with many other great musicians, including Teddy Hill, Charlie Barnet, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Quincy Jones, James Moody, and others. He was one of the most popular and most influential jazz musicians ever to play trumpet.
With his trademarked big, puffy cheeks like a blowfish without the spines, and trumpet bent up at a sharp angle, he was also one of the most easily recognizable musicians ever.
The Dizzy Gillespie album I want to tell you about this time is one of my favorite albums, the 1957 Verve release, “Sonny Side Up.”
The personnel for this remarkable album are:
Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet and vocals (track one only)
Sonny Rollins, tenor sax
Sonny Stitt, tenor sax
Ray Bryant, piano
Tommy Bryant, bass
Charli Persip, drums
This is a short album by modern standards. But what it lacks in quantity is more than made up for by quality. “Sonny Side Up” consists of four songs that run a total of just under 38 minutes. But what a fantastic 38 minutes they are!
First up we are treated to the classic from Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” This of course is one of the all-time great standards of modern music, and the guys obviously had a great time with it, beginning with Sonny Rollins’ solo about a minute twenty in. Rollins is followed by Gillespie and the rhythm section, then back to the tenor sax.
Gillespie was known for his scatting, but toward the end of the opener here he treats us to a nice little vocal that carries on to the end of the song. Few things are harder on the ears than being forced to listen to an accomplished instrumentalist who also mistakenly fancies himself to be a great, or even just adequate, vocalist. Luckily for us, in Gillespie’s case his voice has just the right tenor to carry it off, which makes this version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” all the more memorable.
Here are Gillespie and Co. doing “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” My apologies for the commercial the poster makes you sit through. The song is worth the wait!
The tenor sax battle of the album is up next, pitting the two Sonny’s, Rollins and Stitt on the Stitt composition “Eternal Triangle.” The entire group jumps right out of the starting gate with this one, and they don’t let up until the end of the song just over fourteen minutes later. Everyone gives it their all and succeeds at making this a fantastic listening experience as the two pre-eminent sax giants of their time go back and forth, back and forth, over and over. Finally about nine minutes in, Gillespie steps forward and takes charge. Twelve minutes in the excellent pianist Ray Bryant gets a nice solo shot, then we’re back to Gillespie along with Persip, on drums, beating up a storm. The ending finds one and all bopping hard.
The penultimate song on this album is one of my all-time favorites, the Erskine Hawkins/Avery Parrish classic, “After Hours.” This one opens with the Bryant brothers on piano and bass, with an assist from drummer Persip. Not quite three and a half minutes in, they rhythm section falls back and Gillespie steps up. And on it goes. This has long been one of my favorite blues pieces, and this group gives a knockout performance on it.
Here is the gang performing “After Hours”:
The album closes with a song that I don’t believe I had heard of before. It was written by Anne Caldwell and Vincent Mille Youmans and is called “I Know That You Know.” The horns open, punctuated by Persip’s drums. Then things settle down (if you can really say that a Dizzy Gillespie song has “settled down”!) and we have one of the sax players going at it; which one is anyone’s guess. I don’t pretend to have the expertise to say with authority which Sonny it was, but regardless, it was great. J
The song continues with Gillespie, then one of the saxes, and all the while Bryant’s piano fills the holes admirably. This is, by seconds, the shortest song on the album, but so fast is the playing that you find yourself exhausted from the barrage of notes that have been thrown at you.
Obviously, I am going to tell you that I am certain that you will find “Sonny Side Up” by the inimitable Dizzy Gillespie to be an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To learn more about Dizzy Gillespie and his music, visit his official web site. The folks at PBS have a nice page about him, here. And noted jazz writer Scott Yanow has written a nice bio of Gillespie for the allaboutmusic.com web site.
Thank you for reading this.
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