Ella & Dizzy

NJPAC’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival celebrates the birth centennials of 2 jazz icons.


By Dave Kopplin


One could make the case that 1917 was the year the Jazz Age roared to life.


Not only did the first commercial jazz release appear on disc (from the Original Dixieland Jass Band), but 1917 was an auspicious time for jazz musicians like Buddy Rich and Lena Horne to join humankind. And among the most influential of those arrivals a century ago were two future musical geniuses born in the South, destined to cross paths much later as collaborators on the bandstand.


Both will be honored on Sunday, November 12 during NJPAC’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival: vocalist Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917-June 15, 1996) and trumpeter, composer and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie (October 21, 1917-January 6, 1993).


Ella & Dizzy: The Centennial Celebration features music made famous by the pair, interpreted by an all-star ensemble of contemporary jazz stylists: singers Gregory Porter, Valerie Simpson and Lizz Wright; violinist Regina Carter; trumpeter and composer Sean Jones; trumpeter and flugelhornist Randy Brecker; and the Christian McBride Big Band, led by the acclaimed bassist who serves as NJPAC’s Jazz Advisor.


“It’s going to be a hot night celebrating ‘The First Lady of Song’ – Ella Fitzgerald – and the great one, Dizzy Gillespie,” says the multi-GRAMMY®-winning McBride. “I’m very happy to have my big band as the house band that night, behind Ms. Lizz Wright and Mr. Gregory Porter.


“Not a lot of people realize Valerie Simpson has a jazz pedigree. People know all of her hit records with her late husband, Nick Ashford, but to have her here is going to be something very special. We have the great Regina Carter bringing her fiddle of soul, and to cover the Dizzy Gillespie side we have two masterful trumpet players: my homeboy Randy Brecker and my main man, Mr. Sean Jones.”


Ella Fitzgerald was born in Virginia and moved north with her family at age 2. After the death of her mother, the 15-year-old Ella lived with her aunt in Harlem – a fertile locus for jazz, but a stifling environment for the young singer. She began ditching school, and even worked as a lookout for a numbers runner, eventually landing in a reformatory. Abused by her caretakers, she ran away and survived the depths of the Great Depression by singing on the streets of Harlem.


That all changed in 1934 at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.


Fitzgerald was selected to perform during the legendary Amateur Night at the Apollo and won the $25 first prize for her debut: a rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” one of her mother’s favorite tunes. Jazz saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter was in the crowd and helped connect Fitzgerald to people who could further her career.


She soon landed a gig with Chick Webb’s band, one of the hottest and hardest-swinging bands in Harlem, for a weekly paycheck of $12.50. When Webb died in 1939, she took over as bandleader, renaming the group Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. She recorded several singles in those early years, one of which – “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” – was her first smash.


Keeping a big band together had its drawbacks, and Fitzgerald left in 1942 to focus on her solo work. During the post-WWII years, while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie (which included a 1947 engagement at Newark’s Adams Theatre), Fitzgerald met her future husband, bassist Ray Brown. Through Brown’s affiliation with jazz impresario Norman Granz, producer and founder of the very successful Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) series, Fitzgerald joined JATP with Granz as her manager.


A string of memorable recordings and concert tours followed. During one stop in Dallas, police bullied the “privileged” black performers by raiding Fitzgerald’s dressing room, where Gillespie and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet were tossing dice. Fitzgerald recalled all three being cuffed and hauled to the station, where they were later asked for autographs.


Also in the post-war period, Fitzgerald began to perfect a signature technique: scat singing. Much like a horn player, she improvised melodies using various vocal syllables, in such numbers as “(If You Can’t Sing It) You Have to Swing It.” One of Granz’s JATP regulars, Louis Armstrong, with whom Fitzgerald toured and recorded, was considered one of the greatest scat singers in jazz. She took it to the next level while on tour with Gillespie, another accomplished scat singer.


Fitzgerald soon joined them as the best of the best. Just give a listen to her recording of “Air Mail Special,” from a live album at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. “I stole everything I ever heard,” she once said, “but mostly I stole from the horns.”


Over the next decades, she toured incessantly, logging thousands of miles around the world, sometimes singing two shows a day. She played for three American presidents, and famously performed with a trio in the lounge of an inaugural jumbo jet flight from Los Angeles to Denver. She was in the recording studio regularly, releasing more than 200 albums in her career.


Fitzgerald’s legacy is staggering: She was the first African-American woman to win a GRAMMY Award and owned 13 of them. She sold over 40 million albums during her nearly 60-year career. She received honorary doctorates from Yale and Dartmouth, the National Medal of Freedom, Order of Arts and Letters (France), the Kennedy Center Honors, and the NAACP and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement awards, among many others. From a musical point of view, she was one of the most articulate, ebullient, and hardest swinging singers jazz has ever known, plus she could elevate a song to greater heights, even songs that were already considered standards.


As lyricist Ira Gershwin once remarked: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella sing them.” Indeed, the five-album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook is a release that every jazz fan should have in their collection or on their playlist.


“She was sometimes criticized for a lack of bluesiness and emotional depth,” opined The New York Times in its obituary for Fitzgerald. “But her perfect intonation, vocal acrobatics, clear diction and endless store of melodic improvisations – all driven by powerful rhythmic undercurrents – brought her nearly universal acclaim.”


John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, a longtime resident of Englewood, did it all: He sang, played trumpet, wrote tunes that would become jazz standards, was a progenitor of bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz (“Cubop”), played side-by-side with Charlie Parker in one of the most innovative combos in history, and later went on to lead several pioneering bands of his own.


Gillespie was a creative musician and composer, notorious prankster – hence, the “Dizzy” – and a frontrunner in fusing other styles of music with jazz. More than that, he became the bullfrog-cheeked face of jazz when LIFE magazine famously featured him in a 1948 article about bebop. (Parker was conspicuously absent from that report.)


Gillespie’s beatnik beret, goatee and scholarly glasses became iconic, as did his upswept trumpet, bent at a 45-degree angle.


The youngest of nine, Gillespie was born into a musical family: His father, James, was an amateur bandleader in rural Cheraw, S.C. who encouraged his children to learn music. Gillespie first played piano, then taught himself trombone and trumpet. After hearing trumpeter Roy Eldridge on the radio, the young artist decided to make jazz his life’s work.


“In Cheraw, mischief, money making and music captured all my attention,” he later wrote in his autobiography.


His family moved to Philadelphia and it wasn’t long before he had gigs in jazz orchestras there, including Teddy Hill’s band (his idol, Eldridge, was formerly a member), and in the band of Cab Calloway, where he began writing big band arrangements. Gillespie continued to compose for the bands of Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey, and also freelanced regularly on trumpet with Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.


While in the Earl Hines band, which included Parker among its members, Gillespie debuted one of his most celebrated compositions, “A Night in Tunisia,” among the earliest jazz tunes using Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion. He would go on to write such other Afro-Cuban jazz standards as “Manteca” and “Cubano Bop.”


It wasn’t long before alto saxophonist Parker and Gillespie ventured out on their own with a small combo that defined bebop – revolutionizing jazz and influencing generations. Wynton Marsalis said of Gillespie’s playing: “Nobody had ever even considered playing a trumpet that way, let alone had actually tried.” Jazz historian Mark Gridley points out that some of Gillespie’s signature trumpet licks can be heard later on myriad recordings by other trumpet players, as well as pianists, guitarists, saxophonists and trombonists.


Gillespie ultimately penned a number of beloved bebop standards, including “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts” and “Anthropology” (the last with Parker). His other signature tunes include “Birk’s Works,”  “Oop Bob Sh' Bam,”  “Johnny Come Lately,” and “Dizzy Atmosphere.”


From the early 1950s on, Gillespie wrote numerous arrangements and led his own big bands; his works are still performed by the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. Many of jazz’s movers and shakers, such as Roy Hargrove, James Moody, Cyrus Chesnut and Lewis Nash, honed their chops with those groups. Gillespie also served as inspiration and mentor to a host of other prominent jazz artists, including Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Bobby Sanabria and Jon Faddis.


The U.S. State Department sent Gillespie and his band on tours of Africa, the Middle East and South America, in one of the first formal acknowledgments of jazz as an American cultural contribution to the world. Like Fitzgerald, he played the White House and was showered with accolades, including a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, and numerous honorary doctorates.


Following his death in Englewood, he was buried in Flushing, N.Y., near another legendary trumpeter: Louis Armstrong.


Composer Dave Kopplin holds a Ph.D. in music from UCLA and is on the faculty at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Sept. 28, 2017