June 23, 2010

Big Band Ambassador

Birks Works: Verve Big Band SessionsDuring the Cold War, the U.S. government sent artists - stars of all stripes - around the world to promote a positive image of the United States. This included jazz musicians. And while Louis Armstrong had a justified image as the “real ambassador,” Dizzy Gillespie was the big band ambassador in 1956 on tours of the Middle East and South America. In the Middle East, this included concerts in the cities of Beirut and Athens, as well as stops in Turkey, Iran, India, and Pakistan. After one concert, the local Pakistani paper stated: “The language of diplomacy ought to be translated into a score for a bop trumpet.” Dizzy's integrated band presented a wonderful image of American society to audiences abroad; too bad the reality of race relations back home didn't always match it.
     He tried to keep this big band intact afterwards, but it wasn't economically viable. Dizzy had gone the big band route in the 1940s as well, and lost money on it. As he said, “I’m tired of going down in history. I want to eat.” This band eventually broke up two years later, ironically just before their first release, “Over the Rainbow,” became a hit.
     But they left behind a recorded history that is available on a 2-CD set from Verve Records called Birks Works. Dizzy’s State Department band had some all-star talent, including Phil Woods on alto saxophone, Benny Golson and Ernie Wilkins on tenor sax, Lee Morgan and Quincy Jones on trumpet, Al Grey on trombone, and Wynton Kelly on piano. The music they play is a muscular and dynamic big band sound, similar to the groups of Charles Mingus around this same time. Dizzy’s solos on trumpet soar above all and there’s also some terrific tenor sax work. Highlights include Dizzy's own "Birks' Works," a playful “Doodlin’” (a Horace Silver tune), “Jordu,” Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and “I Remember Clifford,” and “Joogie Boogie.” I personally don’t care for the vocal numbers, which tend toward the Johnny Hartman crooning style. But for big band jazz on some challenging arrangements and with great soloing, check out Birks Works.


  1. Regarding his middle east tour, there is a great story about "how Dizzy brought democracy to the U.S. embassy in Turkey," as told by Nat Hentoff in his introduction to Dizzy's 1977 Montreux concert DVD. He was also in Iran, but not for a gig, as long as I know. He changed his faith in Iran, but not so many people are aware of this.

  2. Yes, Diz became Bahai. He always had a global perspective, though...For a wonderfully ambivalent take on this whole business, check out Brubeck's "Real Ambassadors" w. Louis, Carmen, L, H & R.