Duke’s Professor of Jazz, John Brown, has assembled a first-rate professional big band that should serve as a model for any student or community group that engages in performing the works played during the classic era of big band jazz. On this occasion, the 100th birthday of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s was celebrated through his music at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC.

To say that the seventeen-member group plus guest artist trumpeter Nicholas Payton was “tight” from the opening piece, is an understatement; this was an up-tempo arrangement by Frank Foster of Dizzy Gillespie’s iconic composition “Grooving High.” The only thing missing was Dizzy’s uniquely bent trumpet. However, Payton’s phraseology, and high notes in particular, were essentially indistinguishable in tone and color from those of Dizzy.

It was impressive that Brown clearly demonstrated that he understands the primary role of the bass in the context of most jazz groups (large and small). The bass is the pivot around which the other band members can swing as an ensemble or as a solo; in other words, the bass is the hub of a cohesive unit and must be heard at all times. It was most certainly the case with Brown’s BigBand and nicely demonstrated on “Anthropology” featuring a breakout small group of soloists Brian Miller (alto sax), Evan Roberson (trombone), Andrew Berinson (piano) and drummer Orlandus Perry, as well as Brown on bass.

The first set concluded with Dizzy’s classic “A Night in Tunisia” in a novel arrangement by Michael Philip Mossman involving some of the Afro-Cuban rhythms that Gillespie introduced to the jazz world of bebop in the 1940s. This was largely due to the collaboration with Chano Pozo, a conga player whose rhythmic influence cannot be underestimated in determining the flavor of Dizzy’s music. Brown’s band took elegant advantage of the Afro-Cuban Bebop style on “Tin Tin Deo” in the first set and the classic “Manteo” as the closer of the final set. (Both these pieces were co-written with Pozo.)

Jazz musicians have a penchant for entitling their compositions spelled backwards. Gillespie was no stranger to this practice. His piece “Emanon” is a blues that served as a template for some of the best solos of the evening from Payton who seemed to relish the high notes on the trumpet for which Dizzy was famous. (John Birks Gillespie actually got his nickname early in his career largely due to his funny and sometimes unpredictable behavior on the bandstand!) This obviously encouraged creativity from the “sidemen” in the band on the following piece, “This I Dig of You,” written by saxophonist Hank Mobley. Of note were Andy Kleindest on trombone, Andy Paolantonio on tenor sax, Kevin Van Sant (who played rhythm guitar throughout the concert), a spectacular drum solo from Perry – plus an innovative solo on bass from band leader Brown. (He is known for his extraordinary creative abilities in these matters!)

Altogether, the concert was an inspiring event. The hope is that Brown’s BigBand will continue to serve as a template in the future for visiting national and international jazz artists of the caliber of Payton. (Note that the band’s superb lead trumpeter Jay Meachum was involved in an automobile accident on his way to the concert and thus was unable to participate. He is anticipating a speedy recovery from minor injuries.)

The occasion for this concert was also a fundraiser for the Duke Cancer Institute as well as celebrating John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie’s birth date – it turns out that October 21, 1917 was the actual date of his birth. Coincidentally, his friend and colleague Thelonious Monk’s 100th birth date (11 days earlier on October 10, 1917) is currently being celebrated through Duke Performances.