Tag Archives: Dizzy Gillespie
This piece, published in the Sunday Herald in June 2011, was great fun to write – thanks to its subject’s wilful lack of co-operation … In the excitement of the jazz festival, I forgot to post it – but I’ve had requests recently to do so.
“Can you articulate slowly like I’m doing? Do you speak Russian? Or Japanese?” So begins my interview with the award-winning film composer and jazz arranger/pianist Michel Legrand, who is playing the Glasgow Jazz Festival next week. Instead of the anticipated Gallic charm, I find myself being treated to some Gallic grumpiness as he huffs and puffs and claims to understand neither my Scottish nor my French accent.
Just as I begin to fear for the future of the Auld Alliance, a miracle occurs. Without having to get a translator (or a neutral negotiator – he does live in Geneva, after all) involved – and before either of us hangs up on the other – he answers the original, troublesome question (which he had clearly understood perfectly well). And so begins an interview which really only improves once I twig that articulating like he does means pronouncing American names in an ‘Allo ‘Allo style – Deezy Gillespeee, Gene Kellee, Beex Beederbecke.
Actually, it’s only when he starts waxing lyrical about the great American jazz men that he’s heard that the 79-year-old temporarily stops being exasperated. Legrand, who had been a child prodigy on the piano, was studying classical composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger when he became hooked on jazz.
“I first heard it on the radio when I was a kid. But at that time there was a German occupation in France and jazz was forbidden – so we heard some lousy jazz . Then, just after the war, in 1947 Deezy Gillespee came to Paris to give concerts. I was in the audience and I was ecstatic. I was extremely excited by it.”
The boy wonder of the French music scene in the 1950s, Legrand juggled playing jazz with being in demand as an arranger for such top stars as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. Indeed, it was as Maurice Chevalier’s music director that he made his first trip to America. And it was there, in 1958, that he made his first recording with American jazz musicians – LeGrand Jazz, a collection of his contemporary reworkings of classic jazz tunes from earlier decades. It’s a sign of how highly regarded the young Parisian arranger was (he had already sold seven million copies of his LP I Love Paris in just two years) that he asked for – and got most of the biggest names in jazz at the time. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Herbie Mann.
How did these guys react to a 26-year-old French kid running the show? “They were very kind to me,” recalls Legrand, homing in on the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster who was “un bon papa” to him. One musician who could have been a handful was the star of the moment, trumpeter Miles Davis. Luckily, however, he behaved.
“Miles was adorable with me. I was told that when he’s hired to do a session, he comes on purpose 15 minutes late. He opens the door of the studio and before he enters, he listens to the rehearsal of the orchestra. If he likes it, he comes in and plays. If he doesn’t like it, he closes the door and he goes away and you never see him.
“So I knew this, and I was extremely nervous. And he did exactly that! He came 15 minutes late. He opened the door, he listened to the rehearsal of the orchestra for a few minutes, then he came in, sat down and after the first take, he came to me and said [Legrand assumes a growlly voice that sounds like a Glaswegian heavy]: ‘Michel, you like the way I play?’ I said: ‘Miles, it’s not my job to tell you how to play.’ He said: ‘Yes, it is – because it is your music.’ Isn’t that nice? That’s beautiful.”
In the late 1950s, Legrand began working with the young film directors who launched the New Wave style of cinema. One of his most enduring scores was written for Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), in which all the dialogue was sung. He and Demy – plus the film’s star, Catherine Deneuve, were reunited three years later for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a homage to the Hollywood musical which also starred Gene Kelly. Indeed, it was Legrand who brought Kelly to the project, having collaborated with him on various projects and become “very close friends”.
Perhaps one reason for Legrand’s longevity in the music and entertainment businesses is the fact that he finds he doesn’t want to do the same job for more than a decade at a time. After ten years scoring films in France, he relocated to the States where, almost immediately, he won an Oscar for his song The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Among the many other film scores he has written are The Go-Between (1970), Summer of ’42 (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Never Say Never Again (1983) and Yentl (1983).
Barbra Streisand, the star of Yentl, has proved to be one of several notoriously difficult stars – Stan Getz and Miles Davis are others – with whom Legrand has worked extremely well. Perhaps, given what I experienced down a phone line from him, it’s a case of like likes like …
He may be well into his seventies now, but the British tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins shows no sign of slowing down. At least not if his latest CD – Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is anything to go by.
Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the once- infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow. His mother, a singer whose stage name was Sally Lee, and alto saxophonist father worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
Wellins recalls: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone. My sister and I always went with them when they were working. As a matter of fact, they forgot about us one night – we were locked in the Argyle Cinema. When they got home they realised they’d left us there and they had to rush back in. The two of us were fast asleep in the front row seats.”
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him the alto sax. Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music – where he switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. “All the guys from the various bands who were married and wanted to have holidays would ask me to dep for them. It was a fantastic three years – the best foundation you could ever have.”
One highlight of Wellins’s own big band era was a trip to New York with Vic Lewis’s band and, in particular, a chance encounter with one of his heroes. Wellins recalls: “I ate just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish which I loved – it was a bit like mince and totties – for $2. I suddenly saw this tall figure in a dirty raincoat and a pork-pie hat, standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young’. I couldn’t help myself, I just shot out across the road and shouted ‘Lester!’ I said I was with a British band and asked if I could buy him a drink.
“So we went in and sat down and of course as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me and I’d see this look on their face of disbelief and they’d come over and I’d introduce them. ‘Oh nice to meet you man’ [Wellins goes into female impersonator mode as he imitates Young’s squeaky voice]. We sat there for ages. We talked about everything, current affairs, New York – I told him I was too excited to take it all in . ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He invited me along to a recording he was doing the following week, but we were flying back home so I couldn’t go.”
There’s something of Lester Young’s melancholy sound in Wellins’s own playing, as well as a yearning which critics often describe as a Scottish quality. Does he detect something quintessentially Scottish in his music? “Well, I do sometimes think to myself: ‘This is terribly Scottish-sounding.’ I once played a 6/8 or 12/8 piece entitled Dreams Are Free at Ronnie Scott’s when Dizzy Gillespie was there. When I came offstage, he said: ‘That piece you wrote, it was very African.’ I said: ‘No, it’s Scottish.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘sounds African to me.’ Dizzy was very mischievous, mind. I said: ‘No, it’s definitely Scottish.’ ‘Ah, okay then.’
“So about six months later, there was a phone call at about three in the morning. The voice said: ‘It’s John Birks Gillespie here.’ Of course, I thought: ‘who the hell is John Birks Gillespie?’. Then I realised it was Dizzy. He said: ‘I’ve just been to a Scottish pipe band parade on 42nd Street. You’re right. That composition of yours is Scottish.’ And that was it. He hung up!”
Ironically, the composition with which Wellins is most strongly associated is not one of his own. Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, which was recorded in 1965 and is widely regarded as the best British jazz album of all time, was effectively the product of a musical partnership which began within the Tony Crombie band and blossomed at Ronnie Scott’s club.
Wellins says: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his first club where a lot of heavy gambling used to go on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
In characteristically self-effacing style and with typical Glaswegian frankness, Wellins concludes: “Let’s face it, most people wouldnae know who I was if it hadn’t been for Under Milk Wood.”
* Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is out today.