My Dizzy Gillespie Story
by Charlie Jennison
In 1979, a big band of which I was a member was invited to perform in a Celebrity Series concert, which would feature Dizzy Gillespie as our guest artist and be held at the new Snively Arena on the campus of the University of New Hampshire. It was the second time in five years that he had performed in Durham; the first time was in the old Field House, and now we had a brand new facility to celebrate. The Seacoast Big Band consisted at that time of many UNH music graduates and music educators from New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts, supplemented by a dentist, a doctor, and a judge, among others. We rehearsed weekly in the University band room under the direction of Dr. David Seiler, the director of Jazz Studies at UNH.
My first impression of Dizzy, when he appeared for rehearsals in the band room with his conga drum and trumpet, was of a somewhat tired and rumpled individual with a goofy smile. I remember thinking, “so this is what a jazz master looks like when he is not on stage,” or words to that effect. Dizzy soon proved to be in control of the situation, however, when he started playing rhythms on his conga to impart the authentic Latin feel he wanted for the arrangements he had sent to us earlier. As it turned out, we had a lot to learn about rhythmic interpretation before we were ready for the concert, and Dizzy kept telling our drummer in his voice hoarse from talking and singing that he had to do things differently, even asking his own drummer, who had accompanied Dizzy on this trip, to demonstrate.
Our concert was not without wrinkles that night; I remember Dizzy criticizing the sound people in front of the audience because a monitor speaker had accidentally become unplugged. Dizzy admonished them before the live audience that the sound had been better when he visited the University five years before and they had given him an old radio microphone on a cardboard box! Another incident that had band members shaking their heads was when Dizzy, finally fed up with some rhythmic issue, told our drummer to take a break half way through the performance, and had his drummer play the rest of the concert, using only a spare second trumpet part for music. Evidently he wanted more drive and swing than our less experienced drummer was able to provide. I also remember him requesting that our best jazz trumpet player come down in front of the band on one number to swap licks; I am not sure if it was to feature Bill or to embarrass him, as Dizzy easily outplayed any ideas our spotlighted talent could come up with.
My second encounter with Dizzy occurred soon after I converted to the Baha’i Faith and was married in 1981. I had been teaching in Maine since the 1970s and had become a member of a small jazz group north of Portland, Maine. We called ourselves “The Friends Of Jazz” and played gigs in local clubs and did some workshops in local schools. The group attracted the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts, and we were able to qualify for some funds that allowed us to participate in a concert with Dizzy as guest artist with a big band from Colby College at Portland City Hall.
This second concert was not without its problems, either. The Colby College band was, in the words of Brad Terry, our group leader, pretty “shaky and tentative” and not up to the expectations of Dizzy. They weren’t really able to play the charts he had sent up and their conductor was in over his head with the Afro-Cuban rhythms, so the net result was that during rehearsal, Dizzy only worked on a few of the half dozen charts the band was supposed to play that night.
Between the afternoon rehearsal and the evening performance, we all went out for dinner, and I had a chance to chat with Dizzy briefly. I found out that his saxophone-playing friend from Canada, James Moody, was also a Baha’i and that Dizzy had himself become a member of the Baha’i Faith only a few years before. We had an interesting conversation about how music and art could play an important part in opening people’s hearts and minds to the ideal of world peace. I had a copy of his autobiography that a close friend had given me, and I asked him to autograph it.
The concert that night started out fine, but it soon became evident that the Colby College band was struggling, even though they had skipped dinner to work out problems. Dizzy came out for the first three numbers, but left the stage halfway through the first set of the concert to let the band play the remainder of the music without him. (It sounded pretty strange without the trumpet solos.) Of course the audience was perturbed, because they were looking forward to hearing Dizzy play. Our little combo was scheduled to perform the second half of the show, and we went out on stage wondering just how well we would be received. We had chosen a set of Dizzy’s tunes to play, so we hoped that would keep people’s interest. No sooner had we started the first tune, however, than Dizzy came out of the wings, trumpet in hand, and began jamming with us. He stayed on stage through the entire second half, soloing on each tune in his characteristic bebop style, and the audience loved it! The Portland Press Herald ran a nice article the next week, and I was later able to get a print of the photo taken by the reporter. From left to right, Chris Neville on piano, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Brad Terry on clarinet, and me, Charlie Jennison, on saxophone. Not pictured were our drummer, Steve Grover, or bass player, John Hunter.
What I learned from these experiences with Dizzy Gillespie is that, when it came to music, a high level of performance was expected. Though technically difficult in some instances, it had to be performed well no matter what, and he was not going to settle for second best. He himself was always prepared to give generously of his time and effort when he sensed that other musicians were similarly ready to make the sacrifices necessary for an outstanding, not merely a good, performance. When it came to life, it was evident that he loved food and good cooking, and fortunately I was able to hang out with him a bit longer after the concert because he had time to come out to Brad’s place in Brunswick for lunch the next day before flying back to New Jersey. I remember that he thought he could get some Indian Pudding here in New England and was disappointed they did not have it on the dessert menu at the Portland restaurant, so later I found a can of it in a local tourist shop and mailed it to him on his next birthday! Off the stand, he was quite inquisitive and often very funny, and it was with regret that I finally had to say goodbye and head back to New Hampshire to get ready for school the next day. I never saw him again in person but am very fortunate to have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance.