A NIGHT IN HAVANA
Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba
Review by Mark Wiechman
Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Walter Davis, Jr. (piano), Nasyr Abdul A-Khabyyr
(Drums), Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr (Sax and Clarinet), John Lee (bass), Arturo
Sandoval (trumpet), Gonzalo Rubalcaba (piano).
Director: John Holland
Audio: Dolby 2.0
Video: Color, full screen
Features: See Review
Length: 84 Minutes
Studio: New Video Group
Release Date: July 26, 2005
moon is the same moon above you
Aglow with its cool evening light
But shining at night, in Tunisia
Never does it shine so bright
In the 1940’s, largely due to economic reasons and
changing tastes, big bands were out and bebop was in.
The twin towers of bebop were also saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker
and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Immortal
pianist Thelonious Monk and others also greatly contributed, though Monk is best
known for his innovation composition rather than his playing.
No one had ever heard such sweeping, soaring solos and melodies before.
Classical musicians, upon hearing the music for the first time, often
assumed the record was on the wrong speed.
While classical musicians could play with great virtuosity, few of them
could improvise with such clarity, speed, and inventiveness.
To a casual listener, it may seem as though bebop musicians
are just playing as many notes as they can, but good bebop, particularly
Bird’s recordings, extend the harmonic range of the songs played.
Normally, a soloist plays either scales over the chords of standard tunes
that everyone knows, or else they play the notes in the chords themselves.
Some musicians do both. But
Bird and Diz did one better: they
played notes that were part of the extended chordal harmonies, what
musicologists call “extended tertian sonorities”, thus spontaneously
rewriting and reinventing the tunes they played with incredible speed and
intensity. They played notes that only they could imagine as implied in
the tunes, thus reinventing jazz and music itself.
While the impressionists such as Ravel and Debussy had explored these
harmonies, their music seemed glacial compared with the modern, frenzied rhythms
and solos of bop.
It was this incredible sound that attracted future giant of
jazz Miles Dewey Davis to New York when he was still a teenager.
He described listening to it as the best feeling in the world he had ever
had “with my clothes on.” Instead
of applying himself to his Julliard studies, he pursued Bird and Diz
relentlessly and eventually took Diz’s place when the two giants parted ways.
Bird’s unreliability led to Miles taking over more and more duties of a
bandleader, even composing the well known “Donna Lee” (Bird put his name on
it even though Miles claimed to have written it.
Bird did this sort of thing often and his disciples let him get away with
it). Whereas Bird eventually
destroyed himself, Miles kicked his drug habit, and became a permanent fixture
in jazz, never again settling for being only a sideman.
Bebop, for all its genius, is one point at which many
listeners got off the jazz bus, so to speak.
Even today, it is often too intense and difficult for most listeners to
appreciate and is usually relegated to being “musician’s music.”
Diz managed to have an extremely successful career, however, by injecting
other styles into his bop, such as Afro-Cuban music.
His “Night in Tunisia” is still one of the most popular standards
ever and remains an innovation with its alternating Afro-Cuban and swing
sections. Every young jazz musician
has to learn this tune, and rhythm sections have to learn to switch styles at
will just as young classicists learn their Beethoven.
Bop is one of the peaks of African-American art, but I have always
wondered why didn’t he call it “Night in Havana” to begin with if it is an
This 1988 documentary about Dizzy and his relationship to
Cuba and its music is definitely not just a concert film, it shows snippets of
Diz performing between interviews. Sometimes
he talks about the trumpet as if no one in the audience had ever seen or heard
one before. Certainly no one had
ever played one like Diz, and he does not come across as arrogant, but I
certainly would have liked more insight into his music.
It is wonderful to see Dizzy’s spirit, even at his age, and interesting
to see him work with other great musicians such as Arturo Sandoval, probably the
best-known Cuban jazz musician. Diz
eventually was able to use political connections to get Sandoval and his family
out of Cuba.
I’m at a loss to understand why either the filmmaker or
Dizzy himself would make a big deal about meeting Fidel Castro, who everyone
knows has held the Cuban people down for decades. If bebop is truly a peak in African-American culture, you
would think that Diz would understand repression when he sees it.
He even talks about repression in South Carolina when he was growing up
during an interview. But then he may have wanted to say something about repression
in Cuba and thought better of it, and instead alludes to the poverty he
experienced in his younger days as do Cubans even today, regardless of race.
Castro was nice to him, embraced him, and thanked him for bringing Cuban
music into the American jazz mainstream. I
suppose I might react the same way if given such a royal welcome.
We get to see Diz sing, play piano, and of course wail on
the trumpet. He discusses how
Afro-Cubans were more free to express their heritage on their native instruments
than their American counterparts. Thus
African music thrived in Cuba, and Diz was inspired by this style.
He actually got to play with Cuban musicians in Cuba for the first time,
and see how his pervasive his influence was there.
It would have been better in wide-screen, and much better
if song titles had been incorporated into the changing scenes so that those
unfamiliar with Dizzy would be able to learn.
Having said that, the picture is very clear, and the footage of Cuba is
very beautiful. Segues are smooth,
colors clear, and there are no artifacts that I can see.
A good mix throughout, but I can’t believe it was only
done in stereo. All that great
percussion and multiple horns deserve 5.1 or DTS.
A “New Video” catalog, a short but interesting statement from the filmmaker and his biography, and a theatrical trailer. Some behind the scenes footage or origins of the film would have been nice, but then most documentaries pretty much speak for themselves.