Dizzy Gillespie looms large over the history of jazz as both one of the giants of the art form but also as one of the
most accessible musicians. He's as important to the development of American music as the Thelonious Monks and John
Coltranes of the world, but he also projected a friendliness and warmth, helped along by his cartoonishly flexible
cheeks and terrific sense of humor. The 1988 documentary A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba is a
great place to start for those curious about this vivacious performer. Documenting Dizzy's trip to Castro's island,
the film allows the trumpeter's own personality and complex views on politics, history and music inform the style of
In addition to helping create bebop jazz with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (who was equally winning in A Great Day in Harlem) pioneered the use of Latin rhythms in
American music. Afro-Cuban jazz was the result, and the loose, swinging sound permeated a lot of other genres. Dizzy
picked up the influences during earlier visits to Cuba, so the return documented here was almost like a homecoming.
Dizzy voices some opinions on Castro-era Cuba that Americans may have a tough time processing. He's shown meeting
with Castro himself and talking about how he's been treated as an honored guest. When talking about pre- and
post-revolution Cuba, Dizzy says "Batista [era Cuba] had all the bad effects of our [American] society. But now it's
At first I thought that Dizzy might be oversimplifying the impact Castro has had on Cuban society, but after
watching him some more I realized that he takes in all aspects of the human experience and understands them at many
levels. He identifies with poor Cuban youth, remembering his own oppressed youth in the racist South. He also
identifies an interesting musical source of Cuban Afro-pride that is probably not well known: In most parts of
America, slaves were not allowed to keep their ancestral drums, since that would hinder their forced conversion to
Christianity. Instead, they used their voices to communicate their spiritual side. This development gave birth to
field songs, spirituals and eventually the blues and gospel, among other primarily vocal American musics.
In Cuba, however, the slaves were able to hold onto their drums. This, Dizzy says, led them to develop the rhythmic
music that Dizzy tapped into, reuniting two long separated aspects of African music. Having Dizzy as your history
teacher for this subject matter is just great, given his passion, knowledge and humor. As he says of his
incorporating Cuban rhythm into his first big band,
"from that moment on it was chicken butts!" That's an expression that needs to be used more often.
Dizzy doesn't just offer history lessons, however. When discussing the method of his playing, he reveals an
astonishing fact. According to Dizzy, it's a common misconception that the strength of a horn player's wind comes
from his diaphragm. Dizzy identifies a different, and surprising, source for this power. I don't want to spoil this
laugh-out-loud moment for readers, but let's just say that Dizzy is probably more comfortable playing standing
In addition to Dizzy's terrific interviews, the film is absolutely filled with music. Dizzy performs at large
concerts and in small assemblies for school children. He blows furious trumpet, plays a little piano to accompany
Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, and even sings: His life-worn "Ain't I Good To You" is a highlight, as is a
blazing duet with Sandoval on "A Night in Tunisia," which finds both trumpets reaching for new heights. It's great
to see two giants challenge each other like this on stage and having a blast at the same time. He also sits by and
watched a young Cuban jazz prodigy play, with obviously sincere joy on his face. It's a pleasure to watch such an
expressive musician delight in the music that's inspired him.
The film also travels around Cuba a fair bit with Dizzy. He visits the home of the sister of his late Cuban
collaborator Chano Pazo and talks about his departed friend. He also spends a lot of time speaking with locals.
Dizzy was clearly at ease everywhere he went. The film follows suit with an easy pace and casual style. Director John Holland imbues this fine film with his obvious affection for his subject. It's easy to see why.
The full-frame video is good for the age of the film. It is grainy and the location footage is obviously a bit
rough, but overall it's a nice presentation. It can be a little soft at times but it's never unwatchable. The
compression is fairly well handled. In some busy Cuban cityscape shots it can be slightly noticeable, but it's
The stereo soundtrack is good. The music sounds terrific and lively, with instruments sounding live and engaging.
The interviews are fairly well reproduced, although sometimes the voices can be slightly tough to make out,
considering the accents and locations. But the music is the key and it sounds great.
The only interesting extra is a text statement from the filmmaker that reveals some nice details about Dizzy's
personality. One anecdote that I found interesting: Dizzy, for all his pro-Cuba statements, pulled strings at the
White House to get Sandoval and his family out.
There's also a trailer, filmmaker bio, and a collection of trailers for other fine Docurama releases.
Dizzy Gillespie was a real treasure of American culture. Not only was his playing and composing top notch, but his
mind was sharp and his wit was peerless. This film does a great job of conveying Dizzy as a musician and as a man.