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 the film.
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 so peaceful."
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 up.
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.
There's also a trailer, filmmaker bio, and a collection of trailers for other fine Docurama releases.