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TV Review: 'Dizzy' bio also trumpets an era

Tuesday, May 22, 2001

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gene Davis is no stranger to documentary films. He has produced and directed scores of jazz documentaries, including the award-winning profile of Abbey Lincoln.

Now, he turns his documentary acumen toward one of jazz's best-known trumpeters. "Dizzy: The Life and Music of John Birks Gillespie," a two-hour A&E "Biography" special that airs tonight at 8 and 10 and traces the growth and development of Gillespie from his childhood days in South Carolina to the development of bebop and the United Nation Orchestra established by Adam Clayton Powell.

"Dizzy: The Life and Music of John Birks Gillespie"

When: Tonight at 8 and 10 as part of A&E's "Biography"

Director: Gene Davis


Unlike the Ken Burns series -- which was wonderful but focused more on the pathologies associated with the bebop movement -- Davis' documentary zeroes in on the music and the time and consideration that went into its making.

It's a wonderful synthesis of music and archival interviews, including a 1988 interview with Gillespie that was among his last. He died of cancer in 1993.

Interspersed throughout is commentary by Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter and Frank Wess, as well as interviews with trumpeter Jon Faddis, who was Gillespie's protege.

Gillespie was born Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw, S.C. He taught himself to play trumpet and later won a scholarship to South Carolina's Laurinburg Institute, where he studied for two years.

In 1939, he joined Cab Calloway's band and remained until 1941, when he was fired.

Pittsburgh plays a considerable role in the documentary.

Part of the documentary was filmed at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and features the Ashby brothers -- trombonist Jay and guitarist Marty. Marty Ashby serves as the executive producer of jazz at MCG, performing with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band.

Of interest to Pittsburgh will be commentary from bassist Ray Brown and drummer Joe Harris.

"Dizzy was wonderful to be around," said Harris from his home. Harris and Brown performed in Gillespie's big band in the late 1940s. "He was all about business. Bird [Charlie Parker] might show up or he might not. Dizzy kept things together."

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