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John Bailey Asks

Can You Imagine?

by Robin Kidson

 

 

Dizzy Gillespie For President

 

 

Can you imagine what America might be like today if Dizzy Gillespie had succeeded in his 1964 campaign to be President of the United States?

This is the question posed by American trumpeter, John Bailey, on his recently released album Can You Imagine? “Here we are in 2019”, says Bailey, “and there’s a lack of compassion and basic decency in our leadership and in our culture. I’m just asking: where would our culture be today if someone like Dizzy had actually occupied the White House in 1965? Can you imagine?”

In truth, Dizzy Gillespie’s campaign as an independent “write-in” candidate for the presidency wasn’t meant to be taken that seriously. It started off as a publicity stunt and was suffused with Dizzy’s well developed, offbeat sense of humour. His proposed cabinet included Duke Ellington as Secretary of State, Charles Mingus as Secretary of Peace, Louis Armstrong as Secretary of Agriculture and Miles Davis as Director of the CIA. The White House would be renamed the Blues House. There was even a campaign song, Vote Dizzy, sung to the tune of Salt Peanuts, one of Dizzy’s best known compositions. Here’s a sample of the lyrics: Your Politics ought to be a groovier thing/ Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!/ So get a good president who’s willing to swing/ Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!

 

Listen to a live performance by Dizzy and his band at a concert in Monterey in 1963 with the lyrics sung by Jon Hendricks.

 

 

 

Behind the light hearted mask, Dizzy Gillespie had a lifelong interest in more weighty political issues and this couldn’t help but emerge in his campaign. His policies included, for example, withdrawal from Vietnam and recognition of Communist China, and proceeds from the campaign went to civil rights organisations.

John BaileyNeedless to say, Dizzy didn’t win. Lyndon B Johnson got into the White House and, to be fair, went on to implement his Great Society programme of civil rights reforms and anti-poverty initiatives. Set against that, of course, was growing entanglement in Vietnam.

So, to return to the question posed earlier: If Dizzy had won in ’64, what would it be like now in 2020, another presidential election year? Judging purely by the music on Can You Imagine? which is joyous, upbeat and life affirming, John Bailey thinks the world would be a much more just and enlightened place. This is confirmed by the sleeve notes and the accompanying publicity material. Bailey clearly thinks that America is going through a bad patch at the moment and could do with some of Dizzy’s humanity.

John Bailey has been around a long time but has spent most of his career as a sideman and teacher. He has played with Buddy Rich, Ray Charles, Woody Herman, Frank Sinatra Jr and Arturo O’Farrill amongst many others; and has taught at universities in Florida. He emerged from the sidelines in 2018 with the release of the album In Real Time on which he led a band playing mainly his own compositions.

Can You Imagine? is his second album and is released on his own Freedom Road Records label. Bailey plays trumpet and flugelhorn on the album and is joined by Stacy Dillard (tenor and soprano sax), Stafford Hunter (trombone), Edsel Gomez (piano), Mike Karn (bass) and Victor Lewis (percussion). On some of the tracks, the main band is joined by two “special guests”, Janet Axelrod on flutes and Earl McIntyre on bass trombone and tuba.

It is difficult to get any sort of political statement over in music alone. If you listened to Can You Imagine? without reading the accompanying notes, you would have no idea of its underlying message. What would impress you, though, is the quality of both the playing and the writing. Bailey certainly knows how to write a tune. His playing is also superb and one wonders how and why he has not emerged earlier as a star in his own right.

For a taste of what John Bailey sounds like live, here is a 2016 video of him leading a quintet with Stacy Dillard and Victor Lewis plus John Hart on guitar and Cameron Brown on bass.

 

 

 

The central piece of Can You Imagine? is Bailey’s own composition, the President Gillespie Suite. This has three parts which run seamlessly into each other: The Humanitarian Candidate, Road To The Blues House, and President Gillespie’s Birthday Song.  It has an infectious bass riff running through it played masterfully by Mike Karn. Something about it reminded me of Roy Budd’s theme music for the film Get Carter. Bailey takes a Miles Davis type solo on mute trumpet but also plays without the mute. The highlight, though, is a marvellously inventive solo by Earl McIntyre on bass trombone. We don’t hear nearly enough of the trombone in contemporary jazz. In the hands of a virtuoso like McIntyre, it can be a hugely expressive instrument.

The suite ends with President Gillespie’s Birthday Song which has the whole ensemble blowing joyfully away sounding like a much bigger big band than it is. Stacy Dillard takes solos on tenor and there are some particularly effective passages where trumpet and sax take short solos in turn followed by exchanges between trumpet, drums and sax.

Listen to the President Gillespie Suite.

 

 

 

The other track directly related to Dizzy Gillespie’s 1964 campaign is another Bailey original, The Blues House. This is another great swinging tune with a touch of Horace Silver about it. Stafford Hunter takes a compelling solo on trombone, showing he can match Earl McIntyre for virtuosity and creativity. Bailey’s solo hits a great groove ably driven on by the rhythm section. Towards the end of the piece, trumpet, trombone, drums and bass exchange short solos.

 

Listen to The Blues House.

 

 

 

 

There is one other John Bailey composition on the album – Pebbles In the Pocket – which has the trumpeter in Miles Davis mode, John Bailey Can You Imagine albumboth in his playing and writing. Once again, the foot taps and the band’s engine clicks into a smooth and absorbing groove.

Dizzy Gillespie was one of the pioneers in fusing jazz with Latin and Afro-Cuban music and John Bailey’s CV also includes ventures into this area. He has had, for example, a long association with Arturo O’Farrill. One of the tracks on the album, Ballad From Oro, Incienso Y Mirra, is a composition by Chico O’Farrill, Arturo’s father. This is a great tune with an attractive latin/bluesy beat. There are subtle changes in rhythm and mood and Edsel Gomez contributes a nicely judged piano solo. The Latin theme continues with Valsa Rancho, written by Chico Buarque and Francis Hime, which showcases Janet Axelrod on bass and alto flutes, and Stacy Dillard on soprano sax.

Janet Axelrod also plays flute on Elite State Of Mind, a Stacy Dillard composition which swings along nicely and has some quite complex ensemble playing which the musicians carry off with aplomb. Victor Lewis contributes two pieces to the album: The Touch Of Her Vibe and From The Heart. The Touch Of Her Vibe sees some virtuosic playing by Bailey on flugelhorn and nice interplay between flugelhorn and Stafford Hunter on trombone. From The Heart is an enjoyable piece of foot tapping, Blue Note post-bop.

The final track on the album is a rendering of the Bob Merrill/Jule Styne standard, People. Bailey plays it pretty straight accompanied only by Edsel Gomez on piano. In contrast to the rest of the album which is relentlessly upbeat, People is slow and reflective. It is also moving and, for those who know the lyrics, it fits in with the overall message of the album  emphasising our common humanity and the need for compassion and justice.

 

 

 

Listen to People.

 

 

 

“Positive change is an important theme in this album," says John Bailey of Can You Imagine? “I’m a patriot. I love my country. I want to enlighten people, to have them contemplate not just Dizzy for President in 1964 but any number of opportunities we’ve had, and will have, to champion compassion, dignity and civility. I’m a little frustrated that we’re not there yet, but I believe we will achieve social justice and I am compelled to serve the cause”.

You might not be convinced by the message but, taken on its music alone, Can You Imagine? is a wonderful, foot tapping listen full of great tunes and great playing. Rather late in his career, it looks like John Bailey has finally arrived.

Click here for details and samples of the album that was released on 17th January 2020.


Click here to read more about John Bailey on his website.


Down Beat Dizzy For President

 

 

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