Dizzy Gillespie at Cornell in 1947

Day #2: Seventy years ago, in early October 1947, Billy Shaw, a partner in the Gale booking agency, announced in Downbeat magazine that client Dizzy Gillespie and his big band would be performing at Cornell University on October 18.

Why would a big band that played bebop, not dance music, bother to travel nearly six hours northwest to Ithaca, N.Y., on roads that pre-dated the New York State Thruway? The answer is Marshall Stearns, an ardent jazz fan, writer and critic who was teaching then at Cornell. According to Christopher Coady’s John Lewis and the Challenge of “Real” Black Music, Stearns in 1947 helped form the Cornell Rhythm Club, a university jazz club that invited Gillespie to the college. Gillespie would be part of a season-long series of concerts and lectures that tied together jazz from the past with jazz from the present to demonstrate contemporary influences and to show that jazz, like all great art, was an ongoing, evolving story. [Photo of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, c. 1946-’48, by William P. Gottlieb]

Gillespie first formed a big band to play his new style of jazz—bebop—in 1946. Though he had led small groups in 1945 and early ’46, Gillespie was more passionate about leading and soloing an orchestra that expressed his vision. Gillespie’s 18-piece band in 1947 was at its peak at Cornell that October, playing arrangements written by Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, John Lewis and George Russell. As Gillespie described his new bebop sound to Kaspar Monahan of The Pittsburgh Press 10 days earlier, “It’s another way of phrasing and accenting. The accent is on the upbeat. Instead of OO-bah, it’s oo-BAH. Different chords, too. And lots of flatted 5ths and 9ths. There’s lots more to it. But just now, I can’t think of what.” [Photo above of Dizzy Gillespie in May 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]

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At Cornell, Gillespie’s band was exceptional, as evidenced on the tapes made during the performance. They were released some years ago on two vinyl albums: Dizzy Goes to College Vol.1 & Vol.2 (Jazz Showcase). The band featured Dizzy Gillespie (tp,vcl); Dave Burns, Elmon Wright, Matthew McKay and Ray Orr (tp); William Shepherd and Ted Kelly (tb); John Brown and Howard Johnson (as); James Moody and Joe Gayles (ts); Cecil Payne (bar); Milt Jackson (vib); John Lewis (p); Al McKibbon (b); Joe Harris (d); Chano Pozo (cga) and Kenny Hagood (vcl).

The songs were Cool Breeze, I Can’t Get Started, Relaxin’ at Carmarillo, Yesterdays, One Bass Hit, Salt Peanuts, A Night in Tunisia, Time After Time, Groovin’ High (incomplete), Anthropology, Things to Come, You Go to My Head, Hot House, Lover Man, Toccata for Trumpet, Nearness, Mam’selle and Oop-Pop-a-Da. The lineup was fairly similar to the one Gillespie brought into Carnegie Hall a month earlier in September 1947.

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What’s fascinating about Gillespie’s big band is that it sounded even better live than in the studio. This observation takes nothing away from the band’s studio recordings for Musicraft and RCA during this period, just that the band sounded freer and alive with more room to stretch out. A four-minute Hot House is a good example or the seven-minute-plus Oop-Pop-a Da. Other Gillespie live albums that illustrate my point are Showtime at the Spotlite (Uptown), recorded in July 1946, and the The Salle Pleyel Concert in Paris in July 1948. Of the three, I’d give the edge to the Cornell University concert in terms of its taut power and drill-bit drive.

After the Cornell concert, Gillespie’s big band performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall and then returned to New York. In December, with the American Federation of Musicians’ second recording ban due to go into effect in January, Gillespie was at RCA studios with his big band recording eight of their greatest works—Algo Bueno (Woody’n You), Cool Breeze, Cubana Be, Cubana Bop, Manteca, Good Bait, Ool-Ya-Koo, and Minor Walk. Oh to be at Cornell University in October 1947.

Dizzy Gillespie died in 1993 at age 75.

JazzWax tracks:
Dizzy Goes to College Vol.1 & Vol.2 (Jazz Showcase) are available on vinyl at eBay. The material also is available on CD on the rare Jazz Masters of Jazz; Dizzy Gillespie, Vol. 11, 1947.

JazzWax clips: Here’s Relaxin’ at Camarillo, arranged by George Russell. It’s a fascinating orchestral re-interpretation of the Charlie Parker original that Parker first recorded in February 1947 after his release from Camarillo State Hospital in California, where he was treated for depression…

Relaxin’ at Camarillo

Here’s Gillespie’s arrangement of I Can’t Get Started

I Can’t Get Started

And here’s Gil Fuller’s arrangement of One Bass Hit

One Bass Hit