In 1984, bassist John Lee got a call from his mentor, Bob Cranshaw, a longtime member of Sonny Rollins’s group, asking if he wanted to fly down to Memphis to play with legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
When Lee, who'd been playing in McCoy Tyner’s band for several years, got to Memphis, Gillespie quickly ran through the songs they were going to play, but they didn’t rehearse. That trial by fire led to Lee being Gillespie’s bassist until Gillespie passed away in 1993 at the age of 75.
While Gillespie was a sharp instructor who loved to teach his concepts and jazz theories, one of his greatest qualities was his joie de vivre, Lee says: “He had fun all the time. He could travel for ten hours, and when we hit the stage, Dizzy was having a party, man. It was fun.”
The other profound part of his work with Gillespie was the variety of sounds the band would play every night, including African-Cuban, Brazilian and Argentinian music, some bebop and swing, and maybe some Thelonious Monk songs or arrangements by Lalo Schifrin, who worked in Gillespie’s big band before becoming a world-renowned film composer.
“It was a great variety in the experience of it, so you weren't just playing one kind of jazz,” Lee says. “That was one of the greatest things.”
Lee, who's also a Grammy-winning record producer, was handpicked by Gillespie's widow to keep Gillespie’s legacy alive in small- and big-band forms. He is currently the executive director of the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars.
Along with drummer Tommy Campbell, who worked with Rollins for several years, Lee will fly to Denver from the East Coast for Dazzle’s 104th-birthday celebration for Gillespie, with five shows that run from Wednesday, October 20, through Friday, October 22. Denver trumpeter Greg Gisbert, who played in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, will perform. He’s also put together local musicians for the shows.
“People in Denver don't realize they've got one of the greatest trumpet players in the world in Greg Gisbert,” Lee notes.
The October 20 concert, titled “The Brilliant Compositions of Dizzy Gillespie Through the Decades,” includes some of his biggest hits, including “Salt Peanuts,” “A Night in Tunisia,” “Bebop,” Woody ’n’ You” and more. The October 21 concert will explore the Afro-Latin side of Gillespie, who was a pioneer in fusing Afro-Latin and Afro-Cuban elements with jazz. And on October 22, eighteen musicians will delve into Gillespie’s big-band catalogue, with Gisbert leading the group.
The three Gillespie concerts are part of Dazzle’s 25-year anniversary celebration, which also includes a jazz series at the Denver Press Club that kicks off on Thursday, October 28, with Paul Romaine, Eric Gunnison and Ken Walker.
Earlier this month, the jazz venue and restaurant launched 25 days of giveaways as part of the celebration, with a new prize being given away each day. The series started and ends with a grand prize: The first was a pair of three-day passes to the Gillespie concerts and a meet-and-greet with the band on night one, and the final day’s grand prize is four tickets to a Django Festival Allstars show in November at Dazzle, along with four entrees and a bottle of wine.
Dizzy Gillespie’s 104th Birthday at Dazzle: The Brilliant Compositions of Dizzy Gillespie Through the Decades, Wednesday, 7 p.m. October 20, $10-$35; Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience, 6:30 and 9 p.m. Thursday, October 21, $10-$35; Big Band Artistry of Dizzy Gillespie, 6:30 p.m. Friday, October 22, $10-$35; Dizzy’s 104th Birthday Bash Jam, 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 22, $20-$35. Three-day passes are $80. Dazzle is located at 1512 Curtis Street; find out more at dazzledenver.com.