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Daily Record 1/18/11: Ken Burns Jazz-Dizzy Gillespie (2000)

In 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, compilations, greatest hits, jazz, Rich's House of Vinyl on January 18, 2011 at 6:04 pm

I am fairly certain that Dizzy Gillespie was one of the five coolest men to ever have walked the face of the earth. Despite the somewhat dorky Ken Burns Jazz title, this compilation, which was tied into Burns’ exhaustive history of  jazz (which is the only one of Burns’ documentaries I’ve caught from beginning to end), provides ample evidence of Gillespie’s coolness and is probably an excellent place for a Gillespie neophyte to start if they want to hear some of his best work.

This collection covers a wide period of time–1940 through 1967–in the iconic trumpet player’s career and includes such jazz classics as “A Night in Tunisia” (the current unrest in that country reminded me of this tune, which led me to the entire CD), “Things to Come,” and the epic “Manteca.” I’m no student of jazz, but what I hear when I listen to this overview is Gillespie giving big band music a huge, innovative shot in the arm and then going on to investigate all manner of Latin music and just generally creating some of the most distinctive music (in any genre) of the ’40s and ’50s (and, to some extent, even the ’60s, though by then I don’t think Gillespie was pushing the boundaries the way he once did). If I were to use one word to describe Dizzy Gillespie’s music–even the music he recorded 70 years ago–the word I’d choose is modern.

If all of this sounds a tad academic to people who don’t care about jazz, I don’t mean it to because I think most of the music on this CD is highly accessible (the 14-minute-long “The Eternal Triangle” might be a bit much) and extremely tuneful. I get the impression that there is a lot going on in most of these songs, but I don’t feel like I’m enduring some kind of music appreciation lesson when I’m listening. This is fun stuff.

While this might seem odd on a superficial level, I originally came to appreciate Dizzy Gillespie through Chuck Mangione. I was a big fan of Mangione’s when he climbed the charts with his easy listening fluegelhorn-driven Feels So Good album. While it might not be too difficult to draw a straight line from Chuck M. to Kenny G., the fact is that Mangione had a deep, solid background in jazz from the beginning, no matter how nice “Feels So Good” and other Mangione tunes might sound in dentists’ offices and elevators.

Mangione organized a benefit concert at which a handful of jazz heavyweights played, including Gillespie. The concert became a double live album called Tarantellas, which included an entire side devoted to Gillespie’s performance. This is where I first heard blazing versions of “Manteca” and a few other of Gillespie’s bopping best.

Unfortunately, I saw fit to trade Tarantellas in at some used record store during a vinyl purging I had and I’ve never seen a copy of it in a used record store ever since. Plus, as far as I know, it’s never been released on CD. I’d love to hear it again but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

That’s OK though. I am grateful to Mangione for leading me to Gillespie (and ultimately, to other jazz artists) and Dizzy left a vast array of music for us all to explore. So if you haven’t discovered Dizzy Gillespie yet, why not start today? Tell him Chuck (and Rich) sent you.

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