Review: Dizzy Gillespie Centennial Celebration at The Kennedy Center

Dizzy Gillespie’s 100th birthday celebration at The Kennedy Center jazzed the Eisenhower Theatre last night. I’m sure the rooftop is still aglow this morning.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) revolutionized bebop; he and Charlie “Bird” Parker launched modern jazz.

The evening began when NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, a lifelong friend of Gillespie, described his first big band experience with him. He and John Coltrane replaced to other saxophonists; initially, however, they didn’t replace the suits that the previous band members wore. The small framed Heath’s suit had sleeves that reached to his knees. Gillespie laughed and the show went on.

With Cyrus Chestnut on piano and John Lee on bass, the band got the evening going with Tadd Dameron’s bebop standard, “Hot house.” Freddie Hendrix’s trumpet highlighted the offering with clear, soaring tones.

“I’m BeBoppin Too” with vocals by Ron Wilkins then fanned that heat to a red-hot delight.

The evening, however, covered the range of Gillespie’s musical inspirations, from Afro-Cuban to the influences of Argentina and Brazil

With Heath on tenor saxophone, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Steve Davis on trombone, Chestnut and Lee on piano and bass, and drummer Tommy Campbell, the group played a range of Gillespie’s compositions, with Heath’s tenor and soprano sax playing receiving a standing ovation. The Master still has his gifts, as his constantly bebopping body will attest.

Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Experience (directed by John Lee) then took the spotlight, led by alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity, pianist Abelita Mateus, and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix.

The group was later joined by master Cuban clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and Brazilian trumpeter supreme Claudio Roditi.

Together, and with the full big band, they finished the evening covering a range of Gillespie’s favorite compositions, from the masterful “Tin Tin Deo” to selections from “Dizzy on the Riviera” and “Black Orpheus.”

Near evening’s end, the audience was treated to D’Rivera’s own composition, “I Remember Dizzy” during which the playful D’Rivera flirted with the audience to join in.

The Centennial Celebration offered the audience an array of images of Gillespie and friends, as well as video clips of interviews of Gillespie. In one, he explained the origin of his famous bent trumpet. A preshow rehearsal caused a band member to step back onto the trumpet while it was on its stand, bending the delicate horn 45 degrees. Gillespie played on and never went back. Later versions of the horn were built to those accident-inspired specifications.

To be sure, this Kennedy Center audience was treated to a jazz rarity: such an incredible array of international talent.

To be sure, Dizzy Gillespie’s horn called them all together.

The entire band included Frank Basile on baritone sax, Frank Greene and Terell Stafford on trumpet, Antonio Hart on alto sax, Jason Jackson and Jeff Nelson on trombone, Bobby Lavell and Mike Lee on tenor sax, Evan Sherman on drums, and Douglas Purviance on bass trumpet.

Running Time: 2 hours plus, with no intermission

Dizzy Gillespie Centennial Celebration was a one-night-only performance on October 21, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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