Dizzy Gillespie rightly stands at the apex of great jazz innovators, and, unlike some of his contemporaries, he seemed to suffer few of the phobic personality traits that kept others from interacting with audiences. In other words, Gillespie was a performer, and that genial personality is well on display in this dated and somewhat bizarre film (made for African American exhibition) in 1946.
The pluses of this film are mainly the chance to see (and hear) Gillespie with a host of other luminaries, including vibist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown, playing alongside a cohesive and swinging unit just beginning to explore the bop idiom. Though Gillespie looks a little ill at ease in the first number ("Salt Peanuts"), he quickly morphs into the carefree persona that most associate with his long career. Younger, lither and pre-bent horn, this Gillespie may surprise some viewers only acquainted with his latter years. There's also the chance to hear Gillespie's band tearing through classics like "A Night in Tunisia" and "Ornithology," though strangely these are often used as underscoring for dance routines, so you don't actually get to see the band.
Sadly, though, the negatives outweigh the positives on this DVD release. Though the release notes proclaim it an "excellent 35 mm nitrate," it is in reality a very badly damaged print, both visually and aurally. Missing frames, horrible splices and nonstop scratches and other abrasion make the film unwatchable at times. The liner notes hint that the film's soundtrack was pre-recorded and that the players are "finger-synching," but in watching several numbers carefully I tend to think the actual soundtrack is mis-synched to the picture, and the band is playing live. Though Gillespie's breathing and fingerings do indeed seem to have little to do with what's actually being heard, watching the backup band (especially the drummer) indicates they either were much more skilled synchers than Gillespie, or there's an issue with the soundtrack itself.
Adding to the poor quality of the source material is the horribly dated feel of the film itself. While it may provide some real historical interest (and even significance), the "exotic" dance routines (with scantily clad women) and just flat out corny "comedy" routines interspersed between the musical numbers have not aged well, to say the least.
One final caveat: the "track listings" (i.e., chapter stops) are incorrectly labelled. It's easier to use the "next" button on your remote, rewind slightly to hear the MCs introduction, and figure out where you are that way.
I hope there are better elements out there somewhere for this film, because it certainly deserves better treatment than it is afforded here. As noted above, the image is very badly damaged, with scratches, abrasion, missing frames, splices and warping.
You're better off to stick with the original mono soundtrack here than for the fairly useless 5.1 remix. The music actually sounds pretty good for a film of this age (though, again, the missing frames and splices make for some rough transitions, aurally speaking).
A brief text biography of Gillespie is offered.
It pains me that I can't give a higher recommendation for this film, since it presents a stalwart of jazz in an interesting format. As a historical document, it's priceless; as a DVD release, it's lacking in several key respects. My advice to jazz fans is to rent it to see if its shortcomings are something you can live with; if so, add it to your permanent collection.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet