Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Barbara Dennerlein – 3 Nights in Tunisia

9 Jul

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993) was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and composer. He was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children. Dizzy’s father was a local bandleader, so instruments were made available to Dizzy. He started to play the piano at the age of 4. Together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz.

In addition to featuring in these epochal moments in bebop, he was instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban jazz, the modern jazz version of what early-jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton referred to as the “Spanish Tinge”. Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and gifted improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. In addition to his instrumental skills, Dizzy’s beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop, which was originally regarded as threatening and frightening music by many listeners raised on older styles of jazz. He had an enormous impact on virtually every subsequent trumpeter, both by the example of his playing and as a mentor to younger musicians.  from Wikipedia

There’s sometimes a tendency to underrate Dizzy because, in contrast to the very serious personality of Miles Davis, Dizzy loved to clown around.  As a kid Dizzy used to show up at white dance halls and put on a little dance routine for tips, so he learned early on the usefulness of pleasing a crowd.  And in shifting jazz from a music that people danced to, to something that people would listen to, he also used his skill to keep patrons in the clubs.  I always loved the story of Dizzy saying to the audience, “Now I’d like to introduce the band.  Charlie I’d like you to meet Monk…”  And long before baby-boomers discovered the summer of love in 1967, Dizzy was touring the world for the US State Department and later the UN as an ambassador of peace and understanding using the universal language of music to build bridges.  He even ran for president (before Barack Obama):

Miles Davis was pencilled in as director of the CIA, Louis Armstrong as Minister of Agriculture, Thelonious Monk was to be Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary, and other cabinet members were to include Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman and Count Basie. According to Dizzy, the drummer Max Roach wanted to be Minister of War, but was overruled, because, said the candidate, “We’re not going to have any.” The Library of Congress was to be in the charge of Ray Charles, and Charles Mingus was to be Minister of Peace, “because he’ll take a piece of your head faster than anybody I know”.

“Dizzy’s campaign promised that if he was elected, he would fight for civil rights and equal opportunity in the job market. To ensure that employers were truly blind to race, Dizzy proposed that those applying for jobs would “have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won’t know what they are until after they’ve been hired”. He promised to end the war in Vietnam and to give full diplomatic recognition to China (which the US was not to do until 1979). Healthcare and education were both to be free.”  read more

You can listen to this piece on NPR for a bit more about Dizzy.  But back to the the theme of this piece, Dizzy also composed one of the classic songs of the 20th century, “A Night in Tunisia.”  In the following clip you will see Dizzy sitting at a piano talking about it, and him playing a beautiful arrangement with a European orchestra.

For Hammond B3 organ fans there is an extra treat, Jimmy Smith and Barbara Dennerlein taking solos on “A Night in Tunisia.”  Interestingly, Jimmy Smith watched Barbara playing as this concert was filmed, you can read what she said about it here.

Sometimes people are surprised when Barbara Dennerlein says she didn’t model her playing after Jimmy Smith.  Watching them tackle the same song it is clear that they indeed have very different styles.  Watch their bass pedal technique, Barbara is playing complex yet rhythmic bass lines, and Jimmy is using the pedals more as a rhythmic device, somewhat like a bass drum, and playing only a few notes – yet it is very effective too.  The B3 sound is very forgiving, not only tolerating an inexact run on the keys, but actually rewarding such with a very distinctive and compelling  sound and feeling.  This classic abstract touch was developed wonderfully by Jimmy Smith.  As you watch Barbara you’ll notice a very different approach, an exacting touch and distinct runs.

Personally I love what both of them do, but also recognize they are very different players, just as Miles and Dizzy were very different.  There is a truth that musicianship without “feeling” and “emotion” is lifeless.  Unfortunately, while true, it is also a cheap tool used to support questionable opinions.  Sadly, I’ve encountered a few ardent Jimmy Smith fans, who, when exposed to Barbara Dennerlein’s extraordinary musicianship, try to play the “feeling” card.  Because her outstanding musicianship is undeniable, this “lack of feeling” criticism is the argument of last resort for those who seek to diminish what she does.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that any fair-minded person could watch Jimmy Smith and Barbara Dennerlein soloing on the same song and seriously claim she is lacking in spark or feeling.  Notice she’s the one with her eyes closed when playing, she’s totally into it, in another world, and IMHO absolutely on fire.

Of course in a sense this is understandable, for over four decades legions of jazz organists have copied Jimmy Smith, and he was the musician who put the organ on the map for jazz.  Like Buddy Rich and Muhammad Ali, Jimmy’s ego was as big as his talent was great, and he wasn’t modest about it.  For example, here’s a bit of an interview he gave:

“Sun Ra couldn’t play sh§t, I should’ve shot him.  Billy Preston is a church organ player.  I never heard him play anything.  Most guys just play with two hands, man, but you got all those pedals down there… I’m an expert at it and I don’t make no f§$kin’ money…Everybody’s playing Jimmy Smith, believe me…no one goes beyond what I play because they don’t practice, they don’t listen, they don’t adventure.” (from A Century of Jazz by Roy Carr)

After making those kinds of public statements, I can imagine what went through Jimmy’s mind when he saw Barbara playing, someone who hadn’t copied him, who not only practiced but lived to play, someone who listened to horn players for inspiration, and someone who was by nature adventurous.  In that context it is more than understandable that he refused to be filmed playing with her on stage, there was nothing for him to gain, and a risk to the image he enjoyed (and still has) around the world as the “Incredible” Jimmy Smith.  And to repeat, I think he’s great, the most influential jazz organist who ever lived,  but I reject the impulse to put one musician down in order to build another one up – Diz, Jimmy and Barbara  are all amazing,  so enjoy:


One Response to “Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Barbara Dennerlein – 3 Nights in Tunisia”

  1. Tom Marcello September 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    That’s a crop of one of my photos. Glad you like it!
    It was taken in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1977.



    Tom Marcello
    Manager / Joe Locke

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