If all had gone as planned, Dizzy Gillespie, who turns 75 Oct. 21, would have played at his own pre-birthday bash. Health problems precluded that, but the bebop king was still around to take in an effusive homage from a dizzying array of musicians young, old and in-between.
After Gillespie underwent serious surgery earlier this year, the announcement went out that he wouldn’t be able to make it to L.A. at all. But at the 11th hour, the spirit was willing–and though he looked gaunt and spoke haltingly, Gillespie came out twice to greet the musicians and 11,586 revelers.
From his perch backstage, Gillespie witnessed a peculiar jumble of a tribute, centering on a constantly changing big band ably led by Slide Hampton. Somehow, they managed to touch most of the facets of Gillespie’s huge influence, with a gratifyingly large emphasis on his long-undervalued Afro-Cuban connections.
The most interesting matchups in the long first half were those that spanned yawning generation gaps of trumpeters. A Byron Stripling or a Roy Hargrove could peel off high, hard passages with the bravura of youth.
But they had nothing on Harry “Sweets” Edison, 76, who in backing a rejuvenated Joe Williams in “I Can’t Get Started,” stripped his already sparse style to the absolute limit, each quiet, precious note delivering volumes of meaning. Or Clark Terry, 71, on “Groovin’ High,” who swung like mad on flugelhorn at the softest imaginable level. For the grinning, awe-struck youngsters, it was a master class.
Somewhere in the middle of the gap lay Freddie Hubbard, whose erratic, surly playing had moments of focused fire. While young saxophonists Antonio Hart and David Sanchez flailed away, and Paquito D’Rivera and Mario Rivera produced more disciplined Latin heat, James Moody was the most coherently organized reedman of the lot.
After a first half filled with solo battles and emotional highs, the second half seemed anticlimactic.
The high-spirited finale “Oop-Pop-A-Da,” with its wild bop-scat quintet of Terry, Moody, Williams, Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater, reminded us that bebop doesn’t always have to take itself so damned seriously.