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THE GILLESPIE BIG BAND (1947/48)

Clarke rejoined the Gillespie band in December 1947, in time for the RCA Victor studio sessions that month, followed by the band's European tour of January-March 1948, which, according to Dizzy's biographer, Alyn Shipton, "turned out to be one of the most important seminal events in the history of modern jazz in Europe. There is little doubt, both from recorded evidence and the accounts of musicians and listeners alike, that the tour was a musical triumph, matched only by the saga of managerial incompetence, financial skulduggery, and frayed tempers that underpinned it."

The RCA Victor sessions (over two dates, December 22 and December 30, 1947) cut Dizzy’s “Afro-Cuban” sound for big band, including the original recordings of Manteca, Cubana Be, Cubana Bop and Algo Bueno (Woody’n’You), featuring the congas player Chano Pozo, as well as Cool Breeze, Good Bait, Ool-Ya-Koo and Minor Walk.


The band was apparently “light on material” for the second of these December sessions and the band’s composer/arranger Gil Fuller was finishing up charts in the studio itself, apparently in a rush to get something on disc before a recording strike announced for January 1, 1948. That may explain the inclusion of Ool-Ya-Koo, one of a number of clownish bebop scat vehicles for Dizzy and his singer Kenny Hagood. Although it’s officially a Gillespie/Fuller composition, the riff had been penned earlier by Joe Wilder, one of the band’s former trumpeters, who said he had originally played it “as a background riff behind a singer, like a preacher with a plunger mute”.


Shipton continues that subsequent "rehearsals on board ship [to Europe] gave the new members of the band a better chance to work their way in and for all the musicians to take their mind off the rolling seas and appalling weather. Despite minor injuries all round and seasickness, an astonishing amount of work got done and a real esprit de corps developed. Kenny Clarke was to recall this as the most accomplished of the various lineups of Dizzy's band with which he played. [...] Yet, despite the close musical relationship the band developed, troubles were bubbling under the surface. To a large extent, these centered on the strained relationship between Clarke, already a seasoned traveler, and Milt Shaw [the band's American agent], whom Kenny suspected of having pocketed the difference between the cost of first-class travel and the poorer quality cabins in which the band ended up. [It later] "proved that it was the band's Swedish booker who was at fault. Dizzy managed to sustain an uneasy truce between Milt Shaw and Clarke, even though Shaw apparently attempted to push Clarke overboard when they eventually arrived in Europe."


After several very successful concerts in Sweden, the band almost became stranded without money in Antwerp, but eventually made its way, with some financial and organisational assistance from the French jazz critic Charles Delauney, to France for several sell-out concerts in and beyond Paris (including on February 22 and 28 at the Salle Pleyel, the latter recorded live). The band was delayed for two hours arriving on the evening of its first Paris concert, only to discover that somewhere on the journey all the charts had gone astray and there was no time left to find them. Shipton: "As the band went on stage there were gasps from the audience, who realised that this 17-piece band was about to play entirely without sheet music. "What the hell are we gonna do now?" Kenny Clarke remembered asking Benny Bailey [trumpeter] backstage. "No trouble – we just hit!" Replied Benny. "We've been playing the same music for a month already now. We know it ass-backwards." Charles Delauney noted that after the first piece there was complete silence; the audience was so carried away by the raw energy and power of the music that it forgot to applaud. [...] There could only be one conclusion about Dizzy's performances, and it was most elegantly summed up by Boris Vian: "Bebop, the most recent evolution in the history of jazz, has conquered Paris. Thanks to Dizzy Gillespie."


Musical references:

Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, December 22, 1947 (RCA Victor)

Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, December 30, 1947 (RCA Victor)

The Fabulous Dizzy Gillespie Pleyel Jazz Concert 1948 (Vogue)

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