Longo’s “The Crossing” commemorates the quintet’s voyage to Europe on the SS France. Among other shipboard adventures, at three o’clock one morning after a poker game in Dizzy’s stateroom, he went down a passage, through a door that locked behind him and found himself in the cold and wind atop the ship. Peering into the France’s bridge, he could see “the guys driving the ship.”
“They couldn’t see me. They probably would have been upset that somebody was out there. At night, they really haul ass; waves, spray, I was gettin’ all wet. Oh, my god. Finally, I found a swimming pool and climbed down the railing, went through the pool door and got back to my room, soaked.”
Longo wrote “The Crossing” late one night in London. The band rehearsed it the next afternoon, recorded it in concert at the club that evening and, Mike said, “never played it again.”
Speaking of wig bubbles, Dizzy introduces “Olé For the French Gypsies” with one of his own. Or, perhaps it’s true; he may actually have been kidnapped by a roving band of gypsies. In any case, the musical adventure is real. It has some of his best muted playing, blistering open horn, and a beguiling Gafa solo that may indicate Gypsy blood in the guitarist’s heritage.
Gillespie began singing “Something in Your Smile” shortly after the release of the motion picture Doctor Doolittle in 1967. The song stayed in his repertoire for years. However untrained his voice, he sang with feeling and musicianly control of pitch that made Annie Ross admire him as a vocalist. “He did everything well,” she said.
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s and Vinícius de Moraes’ “Chega de Saudade,” aka “No More Blues,” was the first bossa nova hit. João Gilberto’s 1958 recording captivated American musicians visiting Brazil. Dizzy was entranced by samba rhythms during his State Department tour of South America in 1956. One of the first to incorporate bossa nova’s freshness and propulsiveness into his music, he first recorded “No More Blues” in 1962, shortly after the samba wave began sweeping into North America. By ’73, all the members of his band were masters of the idiom, fully at ease with the subtleties and rhythmic challenges of samba.
Gillespie named “Olinga” for Enoch Olinga, a Ugandan leader in politics and the Bahá'í faith that Dizzy practiced and that Longo follows. He wrote the piece in remembrance of Olinga after he and and his family were murdered in 1979 at a peak of violent unrest in Uganda following the overthrow and self-imposed exile of the country’s president, Idi Amin.
The singer Babs Gonazles wrote “Oop-Pop-A-Da” and recorded it first with his Three Bips And A Bop, but Gillespie made it famous in a 1947 RCA recording with his first big band. Here, he delivers it in a scat performance that evolves for a time into a Gillespie-May duet, the bassist walking with the power that Roker admired. The band takes it out with a brief version of Dizzy’s minor blues “Birks Works” behind Scott’s announcement.
Dizzy Gillespie Live At Ronnie Scott’s
By Doug Ramsey
Coming off 30 days of one-nighters in Europe, Dizzy Gillespie arrived in London with his quintet for a two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Frith Street in Soho. It was August of 1973. That summer, London was in the throes of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s terror campaign. The troubles moved from Ireland to England in March when the IRA planted four car bombs. Two exploded, killing one person and injuring 180 others. Following a series of fatal explosions and bomb threats, the city was on edge, never knowing when or where the next blast might be. Gillespie, pianist Mike Longo; guitarist Al Gafa; bassist Earl May and drummer Mickey Roker found a city in apprehension.
“There was a bomb scare that day,” Gafa remembered. “I think a mailbox had blown up. Taking a cab to work, we had to go through police lines. There was a high amount of tension in the club. Everything was really quiet. The place was packed, but it just had a weird feeling.”
Gillespie’s ebullience and musicianship and the quality of his band would dispel the anxiety. In any event, tension was rarely a feature of Scott’s club on Frith Street in Soho. The proprietor was as celebrated for his askew humor and laconic stewardship of the club as for his musicianship. His band introductions and asides to the audience were often standup comedy. A typical opening routine:
"It was very quiet last night. We had the bouncers chucking people IN. A guy rang up and asked, 'What time does the show start?' I said, ‘What time can you get here?’ No, but I really love this place. It’s made a very happy man old."
When he was barely out of his teens, Scott was a tenor saxophonist infected by bebop. His first trip to New York, for the express purpose of hearing the new music played by its creators, was in early 1947. Later that year, he went to work as a cruise ship musician and made several voyages to the US. Bop was in its ascendancy, and on the New York end of his crossings he wasted none of his 48 hours of turnaround time before he sought out the music. He encountered Gillespie and other heroes he had heard only on records. Scott told of a night on 52nd Street when he listened to Charlie Parker’s quintet with Miles Davis. He then went to the club next door, where Gillespie’s big band was playing and Davis dropped by to sit in.
Even then, Scott dreamed of owning a London club that would present jazz.
In 1959, Scott and his fellow saxophonist Pete King realized the dream with the original Ronnie Scott’s on Gerrard Street, not far from the club’s present location. They opened with tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes and his quartet plus two others whom Scott identified in the publicity as, “A young alto saxophonist, Peter King, and an old tenor saxophonist, Ronnie Scott. The first appearance in a jazz club since the relief of Mafeking by Jack Parnell." Scott was 32.
In their new club, the pair presented the United Kingdom’s best modern jazz musicians. Two years later, King and Scott managed to persuade the American Federation of Musicians to lift its longstanding ban on its members performing in clubs in the UK. Until then, jazz exchanges were limited to formal concerts by Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton and a few others. AFM president James Petrillo allowed tenor sax star Zoot Sims to appear in Scott’s club in exchange for Hayes playing an engagement at the Half Note in New York City. It was a breakthrough that helped lead to Ronnie Scott’s becoming one of the premier jazz establishments in the world. Before long, Ben Webster, Roland Kirk, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich and Ella Fitzgerald followed Sims in the parade of major artists who have continued to perform at the club. Scott died in 1996 at the age of 69. In 2005, King sold Ronnie Scott’s to Sally Greene, a theatre impresario.
Recalling the IRA-induced anxiety surrounding the band’s opening in August of 1973, Gafa said, “Even that first night was great because Dizzy commanded a happy audience. Lots of people would come and we’d go straight ahead. He loved just to show up and play. He was there to make music and we were there to make music, too.” For Scott, it was not hyperbole when each night he introduced his hero of a quarter-century as “the world’s greatest trumpet player.” His wife Mary laughed as she recalled in 2012 that her husband told her, “You know, I really can hardly believe that I’ve got a club and Dizzy Gillespie is playing in it.”
Pianist Mike Longo, who composed many of the pieces in Gillespie’s repertoire, is a Floridian who was an early protégé of Cannonball Adderley and later a student of Oscar Peterson. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge took Gillespie to hear Longo in a duo with bassist Paul Chambers at a New York club in the early 1960s. Dizzy hired the young pianist the next day. Longo served as his music director for nine years. In addition to the taxing round of gigs the band played before they opened at Scott’s, Longo fondly remembers the ocean voyages on either end of the European adventure.
“We traveled on the SS France, the ship that later became the Norway and made so many jazz cruises. Dizzy had arranged for us to get passage free if we’d play concerts coming and going. In addition, on the way over Dizzy offered to play for the crew, down near the bottom of the ship where they had their meals. They took a piano down there and we played a whole concert. They really appreciated that. All of us in the band had nice staterooms on a higher deck, but Dizzy was in one of the suites on the top. It looked like a villa. Mickey Roker and Dizzy and I used to play poker up there.”
Roker had been drumming with trumpeter Lee Morgan when he joined Gillespie. He had worked with guitartist Gafa in the trio backing singer Carmen McRae. Roker recommended Gafa to Gillespie. “I knew he was capable of good guitar playing,” he said. “He played it like the piano, knowing how to accompany a singer.” The drummer was also delighted to be working again with Earl May. “He was a great player,” Roker said, referring to May’s bass lines. “He walked like Ray Brown.” Gafa knew May from his days at the New York Playboy Club and, later, The Cellar, in a quartet that also included pianist Larry Willis and drummer Al Foster. When Alex Blake left Gillespie, Gafa recommended May for the bass slot. Such were the tight interconnections in the New York jazz brotherhood that led to the creation of the Gillespie quintet we hear on these recordings.
Longo recalls that during the tour the band crossed paths with McRae. She decided to travel with her close friend. “She just wanted to hang with Dizzy, and she’d sing every night for us. Carmen loved that rhythm section. She’d start singing and say, “Oh, my god, instant groove.”
We hear no Carmen McRae vocals in this swath of living history from Ronnie Scott’s, but there is plenty of groove, instant and otherwise. It starts with “Sunshine,” the first Mike Longo composition in the collection, and does not subside until after Dizzy’s little blues surprise that ends the collection. In one form or another, Gillespie’s and the band’s rhythmic mastery is constantly at work. Mickey Roker has a drummer’s appreciation for Dizzy’s grasp of rhythm’s essential importance.
“A lot of people you work with don’t know what to tell you; don’t know what they want. They know melody and harmony, but they don’t understand rhythm. Dizzy Gillespie was a master of understanding rhythm. He knew what he wanted from the drums, and he would tell me—exactly. He’d give you the rhythm, but you’d be free to embellish on it. He wanted you to really ring it out.”
Roker remembered the stimulation the audience at Ronnie Scott’s provided Gillespie and his sidemen. “The crowds loved that band,” he said. “The band was strong then, and new, and everybody was excited about playing. Oh, we had so much fun, man.”
Part of the fun during the engagement had nothing directly to do with music. Longo recalls daytime poker games at the club with Scott, Gillespie and Roker. “We played with English money, of course. I remember Ronnie saying to Dizzy, ‘I raise you a pound.’ Dizzy said, ‘I raise you a ton.’”
Mary Scott often saw Gillespie and Scott hovering over the chess board in her husband’s office. “Every opportunity they got when Dizzy wasn’t playing, they had chess games at the back of the club,” she said. “They were both ardent chess players. The games between them got quite interesting; Dizzy also had an amazing sense of humor, you know. It could be hysterical. When Ronnie found someone to play with who was as good as he was—and Dizzy was—it was brilliant. Ronnie really looked forward to it.”
It may have been during a chess game that Gillespie and Scott had the following exchange, quoted in John Fordham’s 1985 book, Let’s Join Hands And Contact The Living: Ronnie Scott And His Club (reissued a decade later by Trafalgar Square publishers as Jazz Man).
Scott particularly admired Gillespie, one of the pioneers of the music that had taken him over when he was hardly out of his teens. To have visited the 52nd Street clubs when Gillespie's playing, and his mannerisms, and his jokes were the talk of the London jazz circles and to find him there, answering an invitation in the reverse direction thirty years later, was sheer fascination. Gillespie, for all his clowning and bonhomie on stage was realistic about the jazz business in a way that Ronnie Scott had hardly ever heard before.
One night in the back room, Scott began talking with the trumpeter about the magic of jazz, the pull that kept musicians in thrall to it.
'It happens so seldom' Scott said to Gillespie. 'Ninety-nine per cent of the time you play within boundaries. Then sometimes something happens and you break through it for a night, or an hour, or eight bars.'
'That's what the incentive is' Gillespie agreed. 'How often do you think it's happened to you?' the Englishman enquired.
'About once every two years', Gillespie unhesitatingly returned. It was a reflection of the merciless demands of combining a sophisticated improvised music with the necessity to continually tour to make a living.
After hearing those paragraphs, Mike Longo, who listened to Dizzy from the piano bench night after night for years, demurred from Gillespie’s claim of infrequent inspiration.
“I don’t understand that,” Longo said. “It sounded to me as if he was firing on all eight cylinders every night. He told an English reviewer at the time that this was the best band he’d ever had. We were puttin’ the fire under him mainly because he was puttin’ the fire under us. It was a really inspired group. You would often see the same people come in the club every night because they knew that the “Night in Tunisia” you were going to hear tonight wasn’t the “Night in Tunisia” you heard last night. It’s sort of like a baseball game. Even though you’ve got three strikes and four balls, the base lines and the pitcher’s mound, there is no way you can go see the Yankees play today and have the same experience you had yesterday. And that’s sort of what it was like playing with Dizzy. He had certain musical things he kept in the act. He might play a little passage every time in a certain tune. But everything that surrounded it, everything afterward, was just happening on the spot.”
Above all, despite the high satisfaction level of simply working for Gillespie, the surviving members of the band consider that his greatest legacy to them is what they learned.
“When I first went with Dizzy,” Longo said, “I used to tell people, if I had been Dizzy I would have fired me, ‘cause there was no way in life I was coming up to his level. And I had been playing in New York with Miles’s guys and the Basie band guys. I had the trio in the city and all that. But when I went with Dizzy, I was a like a beginner, compared to the level he was playing on. I remember being worn out sometimes because he would let me solo too long, in my estimation. I’d be playing and I’d say, ‘Goddam, man, it’s time for you to come in,’ and he’d let me go another chorus, making me stretch. He did that often.”
Al Gafa, a musician seasoned in jazz groups and the studios before he joined Gillespie, said, “You had to stay on your toes all the time. He’d take you on a trip on every tune if he wanted to. And many nights he did. He was just a terrific musician to be around. For me, it was by osmosis. He never said, ‘Play this, play that.’ My relationship with him started off really great. After my first set with him in ‘71, I said, ‘Is there anything you want me to do to make this situation better?’ He said, “No, do exactly what you’re doing. It’s great.”
For Gafa, the osmosis extended to harmonic concepts. In Gillespie’s way of improvising, harmony involved bebop intricacies the guitarist did not expect. He said that when he came to the group his tendency was to choose the conventional notes in, for instance, in a D7 chord; first, third, fifth, fourth, seventh, ninth and so on.
“Dizzy would play flat 5, sharp 5, flat 9, sharp 9. The first night I worked with him, I went to play the chord that was on the music and nothing he played was related to it. He was picking notes that were not in the written chord. And you know what? They were right. In a jazz situation, if a guy chooses a note, that is the right note. You’ve got to alter what you’re playing to make his note sound right. So, I had to change my harmonic concept playing behind him. Then it got a lot simpler to approach the guitar for him. And he never said a thing about that. It just happened. If you’re a musician and you’re working with him, you have to learn because his ability was just so terrific.”
Gafa, who contributed extensively to the band’s book, is represented here by his intriguing samba “Behind a Moonbeam.” Seven of Mike Longo’s compositions are in these recordings. The leader, one of the most influential jazz composers, contributed seven of his best-known pieces and two, “Timet” and “Brother K” that were relatively new to the book. With so much resident writing talent, Dizzy still made room in his repertoire to interpret songs by George Gershwin, Luis Bonfa and Leslie Bricusse.