Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  John 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

The 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

Film **1/2

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 Afro-Cuban song?

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.

Video ***

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. 

Audio **1/2

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.

Features **

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. 


An excellent documentary about the late great Dizzy Gillespie finally released on DVD.  His spirit and innovation continues to inspire music listeners of all backgrounds. 

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