Tag Archives: Dizzy Gillespie

Benny, Brownie and Dizzy

On June 26, 1956, legendary trumpet player Clifford “Brownie” Brown had just left performing at Music City in Center City when he was killed in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He was only 25.

In tribute to his friend, Philly native and NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson composed “I Remember Clifford.” In an episode of Jazz Stories by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Golson recounted how Dizzy Gillespie became the first person to hear his tribute to Brownie:

I decided I would try to write a song that would be reminiscent of Clifford. And during those days, I could write a song in one day. You know, just a half-hour or so—might not have been that great though. But this tune, because of what he meant to me as a friend and fellow musician and what I wanted the song to be, consequentially, it took me almost a whole two weeks to do it. And once I did it, I wasn’t sure what I had.

So Dizzy came in early one night and I had come with my uniform that afternoon knowing that I wouldn’t be going back to the hotel. So since he was there, I decided to ask him what he thought about it. Chairs were still up on the tables, they hadn’t really prepared, but somehow he came early. So I asked him did he have a moment to listen because I wanted him to hear something. And he said, “Okay.”

He came over and sat down at the table and I started to play this tune and he said, “Hmm…” And then he started to take his trumpet out of the case and I thought to myself, “The man doesn’t even know the tune and he’s going to try to play it!” But he fooled me.

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Hot Jazz and Cold War

In his opening remarks at the International Jazz Day global concert at the White House, President Barack Obama said:

Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.

That “honest reflection of who we are as a nation” became an instrument of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Jazz musicians-turned-cultural ambassadors toured in more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Jazz diplomacy was intended to win hearts and minds and promote a positive view of America as the land of freedom.

The irony of being ambassadors of freedom was not lost on jazz musicians who were treated as second-class citizens at home and subject to racial segregation.

As part of Jazz Appreciation Month, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Public Diplomacy Council and the DC Jazz Festival presented a program on jazz and public diplomacy.

Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz Ambassador. The legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the catalyst behind the tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, recently wrote:

Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

[…]

During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.

“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said [Willard] Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”

Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “‘Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”

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John Coltrane and Cultural Heritage Preservation

Jazz legend John Coltrane personified cool.

John Coltrane

Coltrane was into cultural heritage preservation before it was cool. His composition, “Alabama” was in response to the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. His mournful tribute captured the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights Movement.

Philadelphia shaped and nurtured Coltrane. On June 5, 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, featuring Charlie Parker, performed at the Academy of Music. Coltrane and Benny Golson were seated in the next-to-last row. In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master Golson recalled:

When we heard – John and I – when we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – I told you he was sounding like Johnny Hodges – our lives changed that night. We had never heard any music like that. Never. We were screaming like these Beatles groupies, when they used to hear the Beatles.

Coltrane kicked his heroin habit at his home in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood in North Central Philly. The Mural Arts Program, in collaboration with the community, honored a former neighbor. On or about Sept. 15, 2014, Pennrose Company demolished the Tribute to John Coltrane mural.

John Coltrane Mural - Resized

Pennrose has not contributed a dime to replace the tribute to an American icon. The cultural resource was paid for, in part, by taxpayers. After being called out, a company rep lied about “ongoing discussions.”

I know they lied because I was part of the only discussion that has taken place. At the March 10, 2015, meeting with Mural Arts, Lopa Kolluri, Pennrose’s Vice President of Operations, asked for a “menu of options.” Mural Arts sent a proposal and several follow-up emails to which Pennrose has yet to respond.

Pennrose’s arrogance is particularly galling given the company has feasted on public subsidies seasoned with political donations for nearly 40 years. In 1989, a Philadelphia Inquirer story noted the company’s reliance on government subsidies.

Pennrose doesn’t think our stories matter, but we do. It’s our responsibility to remember the ancestors and preserve their legacy for present and future generations. #BlackCultureMatters

Frank Palumbo’s Click Club

Frank Palumbo was a South Philly-based restaurateur and philanthropist. He owned a number of night clubs, including the legendary Palumbo’s in South Philly and Center City’s Click Club, where Benny Goodman recorded a live album in 1948.

In a 2005 interview with West Philadelphia Music, a project of the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania, jazz vocalist George Townes recalled:

And then on the corner at 16th and Market there was a club, they had a revolving stage upstairs, that’s no more there either. Big bands used to go in there too. The Click, they called it the Click.

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Music City

In 1947, drummer Ellis Tollin and his business partner William Welsh opened Music City. What started out as a drum shop became a unique performance space where top jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, held jam sessions and mentored up-and-coming musicians like Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Archie Shepp.

Music City Collage

Trumpeter Ted Curson recalled:

It was like the scene in Philadelphia for young cats and old cats. They would bring guys in from New York to play and they would have the young guys sit in with them. If you played pretty good you always ended up with some kind of gig.

Jazz legend Clifford Brown gave his last performance at Music City. He left directly from there for a gig in Chicago. He never made it. He was killed in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, archivist and Philadelphia music historian Jack McCarthy wrote:

On Tuesday evenings in the mid 1950s, young jazz enthusiasts from all over the city would gather inside the popular music store, Music City, at what is now 1033 Chestnut Street. Some came to jam, while others sat back and listened to intimate performances by major players of the era. It was an especially fertile period in Philly jazz when the city hummed with lively clubs and was home to many of the genre’s important instrumentalists. For aspiring teenage musicians who were too young to get into the clubs, Music City was a place to trade notes with fellow young players and even to play with their musical heroes if they were lucky. Many emerging Philly jazz performers of the 1950s cut their teeth there.

[…]

[Clifford] Brown had established himself as one of the top trumpeters in jazz by the mid1950s. He was living in Philadelphia during this period and was a frequent, featured guest at Music City. As the original story went, Brown performed at the store on the evening of June 26, 1956, accompanied by Ellis Tollin on drums and several other Philly musicians, and left directly from there to drive to a gig in Chicago. With him on the trip were the pianist Richie Powell and his wife, Nancy, who did the driving. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the car ran off the road and crashed, killing all three.

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Academy of Music

Opened in 1857, the Academy of Music is the country’s oldest concert hall and opera house. The “Grand Old Lady of Broad Street” has welcomed jazz, blues and R&B legends, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

On June 5, 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, featuring Charlie Parker, was in the house. Seated in the next-to-last row were Benny Golson and John Coltrane. In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson recalled:

When we heard – John and I, when we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie] – I told you he was sounding like Johnny Hodges – our lives changed that night. We had never heard any music like that. Never. We were screaming like these Beatles groupies, when they used to hear the Beatles. They played this Latin tune. We never heard any Latin tune like that in our lives. The Latin tunes that we played were like Lady of Spain, the stock arrangements, My Shawl. But this Latin thing, we had never heard it. Then they played an interlude, and they made a break, and Charlie Parker made a pickup by himself. Usually it was two bars, but he did it four bars, double-time. We were going crazy. We almost – of course we were up there with the cheap seats – we almost fell over the balcony. It was A Night in Tunisia. We never heard that before. Oh my goodness.

Golson expounded on that fateful night in his autobiography, Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson:

The concert was staged at the Academy of Music, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We took our places, greatly excited, in the cheap seats in the uppermost level. Diz’s band kicked off with the strangest Latin-sounding tune we had ever heard. John thought it sounded “like snake charmer’s music”: Dizzy’s “A Night in Tunisia” was weirder than anything we had heard before, but intriguing. The band moved through the melody, dove into an interlude, then opened into a bravura set of riffs, or glissandi, a sustained high-octane break by the alto player, Charlie Parker. To us, the sound was way out there. Parker was dressed in a double-breasted suit with all of the buttons closed. He looked like an adult stuffed into his grade school graduation suit. …

We both nearly fell over the balcony rail, all the cells and nerves in our bodies wild with abandon. Their music was crazy and we went into an exuberant delirium, doubtless a form of higher awareness and pure joy. John tried to crawl up my gyrating body while I was grabbing onto him with barely contained amazement. We were both screaming like schoolgirls. We had heard strong performances in our young lives, but nothing like this. This was beyond “good.” It was completely new, innovative, and profound. We were drunk with happiness and bewilderment. I felt like crying. We didn’t know then, but our musical world changed that night.

Published by Temple University Press, Golson’s autobiography is available for purchase here.