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JazzTimes 10: Essential Dizzy Gillespie Recordings

Must-hear music by a bebop and Latin-jazz visionary

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He loved the nickname “Dizzy,” and he did everything he could to live up to it. The hyperactive stage antics, the puffed cheeks, the distinctive bent trumpet—it all fed into his persona as a showman. Yet John Birks Gillespie was anything but dizzy. He was the brain trust of the bebop revolution: Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were his creative equals (and may have been the only ones), but it was Gillespie who intellectualized the music, codified it, and became its emissary to the world.

It wasn’t his only direction. Gillespie is equally important in the birth of Latin jazz, and he did his best to push forward from there and to keep a creative edge right up to his passing in 1993. Here are 10 artifacts from that journey.

4. Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra: “Cubana Be”/“Cubana Bop” (The Complete RCA Victor Recordings [originally recorded December 22, 1947])

4. Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra: “Cubana Be”/“Cubana Bop” (<i>The Complete RCA Victor Recordings</i> [originally recorded December 22, 1947])

Technically it’s two tracks—both sides of a 78-rpm record—recorded eight days before “Manteca” and contrasting with it strikingly. Although there’s no doubt of that more famous song’s Afro-Cuban bona fides, it fuses them with Gillespie’s instincts as both a bebopper and an entertainer. “Cubana Be” and “Cubana Bop,” both written by George Russell, meld modern jazz with something much rawer and more folk-rooted. “Cubana Be” pits bebop harmonies and horn interchanges against fierce hand drumming—but as lush as the horn charts get, they are somehow always dominated by the percussion. Most of “Cubana Bop,” meanwhile, sounds like an Alan Lomax field recording, perhaps at an Abakuá or Santería rite. Dizzy’s concept of Latin jazz was never about picking and choosing the most gregarious parts; he provided the gregariousness himself, while the music remained a serious cross-cultural exploration.

Learn more about The Complete RCA Victor Recordings at Amazon.

Listen to a Spotify playlist including most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10:


Read Gary Giddins’ 2006 Cadenza column on Dizzy Gillespie.

Dizzy Gillespie: 1982 NEA Jazz Master

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.