Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Dizzy Gillespie, Berlin nightclub, Toronto, March 1989

THERE WAS NO WAY I WASN'T GOING TO TRY AND PHOTOGRAPH DIZZY GILLESPIE when he came through town. Even forty years later, he was still synonymous with bebop and the revolution in jazz he helped pioneer with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and others. The fact that he was still alive and touring made trying to get a shot of him an imperative. It was like collecting baseball cards: you'd always be able to find a Reggie Smith or a Mike Easler, but you had to have a Hank Aaron and a Mickey Mantle.

Dizzy came through town twice in less than a year, the first time during the jazz festival, playing a gig with his United Nation Orchestra at Roy Thompson Hall, the big prestige venue downtown where the symphony played. I got accredited and took my place at the lip of the stage, enjoying the very bright stage lights and working hard to get the photo I felt I needed to have - Dizzy, cheeks fully inflated, the bell of his "bent" trumpet pointed into the air.

Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, June 1988

That it was a photo many other people had managed to get didn't bother me - putting one in my files was a rite of passage, or so I thought. I also ended up with a lot of photos of Dizzy mugging for my camera, and at least one that captured the showman he'd become in his later years, providing a worthwhile return for the price of a ticket for the audiences he could still pull.

Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, June 1988

It wasn't a secret that Dizzy wasn't nearly the player he once was; when he came through town again nine months later, playing two nights at Berlin, a dodgy uptown nightclub, he had Cuban expat trumpeter Arturo Sandoval in the band to provide the trumpet pyrotechnics for which Dizzy had once been famous. He had, by the late '80s, come to fill the spot Louis Armstrong once filled late in his life - a roving ambassador for the music, but while Armstrong was still capable of a spectacular performance as a singer or trumpeter in the studio, it had been a long time since Dizzy released an essential record.

For jazz fans, it was Dizzy's band that was usually the draw - he had a rhythm section that included bassist John Lee, guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer Ignacio Berroa, and also toured at this time with a band that would feature Jon Faddis, Moe Koffman, James Moody, Paquito D'Rivera and Sam Rivers - the last being the big draw for my circle of jazz fan friends on both of Dizzy's visits. Dizzy was considered a good gig for musicians - you'd get a couple solo spots every night, you'd travel to nice places, stay in good hotels, and come home with some decent money.

Dizzy Gillespie, Berlin nightclub, Toronto, March 1989

My favorite shot of Dizzy from the shows I shot is probably this one, which I've only ever printed in any form with this post. I must have tried at least once to get a portrait, but obviously nothing could be arranged. One of the iconic trumpet shots probably ended up in contention for a group show of jazz photos, and might have spent a few months in my portfolio until I realized that nobody who would give me the work I wanted cared about my live jazz photos. Essentially, none of these have been seen anywhere in well over twenty years.

Dizzy Gillespie died in Englewood, New Jersey on January 6, 1993.

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  1. Rick! I was at the second show at the Berlin club in 1989. I was fresh out of highschool and had just moved to Toronto. As a high school trumpet player, Dizz was a hero of mine. When I saw that he was performing in town I had to spend the $35 for a standing room only ticket. So glad you managed to capture the moment on film.

  2. Okay guys! Sam Rivers Sessionography in progress: Who played at the Berlin Club gigs? Was it the Quintet w/ Rivers? Your piece here is the only thing that I've found that even implies he was on these dates. Help me somebody. Thanks!