Weekend Extra: Dizzy Gillespie & Red Mitchell

The image to the left captures a moment in a short, happy period in the Dizzy Gillespie & Red Mitchell 2histories of two major figures in the jazz of the late twentieth century. In 1970 bassist Red Mitchell joined Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet for a European tour that included concerts in Holland and France. When I recently visited Mike Longo in New York, he recalled the tour as one of the highlights of his eight years as Gillespie’s pianist and music director.

Guitarist George Davis and drummer David Lee came to Gillespie’s and Longo’s attention when they heard them in the late sixties while the Gillespie band was in New Orleans for an engagement at Economy Hall in the basement of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Davis and Lee were in the thick of the Crescent City’s modern jazz community that also included Willie and Earl Turbinton, Johnny Vidacovich, Al Belletto, Ellis Marsalis and Richard Payne. Their association with Gillespie and Longo brought them to the attention of listeners around the world.

Mitchell had played briefly with Gillespie before he moved to Sweden, where he lived for the next for 24 years. He was lauded as one of the great bassists even before he made the innovative decision to tune his bass in intervals of fifths rather than the traditional fourths. Mitchell’s solo on “A Night in Tunisia” in the video we’re about to watch gives an indication of how he incorporated the unconventional tuning into his stunning technique. The benefactor who made the YouTube upload of the video is identified only as belltele1, evidently someone in Russia. As for the location of the concert, Mike Longo recalls that it was “somewhere in France.”

Listening tip: The sound is not digital quality. I found that it improved when I boosted the treble and reduced the bass. Toward the end of this 35-minute segment of the concert, we get a generous sample of Dizzy’s scatting prowess.

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  1. says

    Wo! Thanks for posting this, Doug! I’m downloading it as I listen.

    Such nice long shots of Red’s hands! He was such an innovator…first bassist I heard using the light-touch technique that was later developed by bassists like Mraz and NHOP. He always had such a lyrical solo imagination, and was the first to try out anything new in strings, pickups, amps, etc. When he switched to the cello tuning in order to get the low C required on some dates, I asked him how long it took him to get his mind and fingers used to the new tuning. He was doing a lot of movie dates at the time. He said,”I practiced hard all one weekend, and went back to work on Monday and made a lot of mistakes!” He sure got it together quick, and is wonderful in this film.

    • Charlton Price says

      These comments from Bill Crow further enhance the value of this already invaluable archive item, even with the soggy sound. I’ve had to stop after “Tunisia” because I’m limp with awe. Red provides such a huge legacy of musical imagination, technique, and joie de vivre . These are all imperishable gifts to both musicians and fans. I think of his work with Jimmy Rowles, a duo session with Herb Ellis (“Doggin’Around”) , an “A Train” with Clark Terry, and the envoi living-room session he did in Sweden with Zoot Sims and a guitar. Thank you, Red. Thank you, Doug.

    • David says

      For more closeups of those long fingers, I’d suggest the dvd referenced by Mr. Price (“In a Sentimental Mood”.) This also features some very funny conversation (as does the video of Red & Chet.) Gorgeous playing by Red & Zoot in what was Zoot’s last recording. I suppose that Red had to make do with retuned conventional bass strings, at least in the beginning, but manufacturers now offer a “Red Mitchell Set”.

  2. Tony Burrell, II says

    Thank you very much, Doug, for the video clip and the reference to Red Mitchell’s tuning the bass in fifths instead of fourths.Quite a nice solo that he had for sure with a very tasty use of double stops here and there What I also liked was that the solo was more tranquil, somewhat rhapsodic (to my ears) and melodic rather than the rapid fire finger work that so many bassists employ these days.

    Being an extremely amateur (and definitely not very good) bassist myself, I wondered just what was the exact tuning that he used. For one thing, I remembered an album that I had way back in the day by the Red Mitchell Quintet (I think) that had him playing pizzicato cello on it and wondered if that caused him to use cello tuning on the bass. I found a Wikipedia reference on bass tuning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_bass#Tuning) that, lo and behold , answered my question precisely: “A small number of bass players tune their strings in fifths, like a cello but an octave lower (C-G-D-A low to high). This tuning was used by the jazz player Red Mitchell and is increasingly used by classical players, notably the Canadian bassist Joel Quarrington.”

    If my very faulty memory serves me correctly, the above mentioned vinyl album was a live recording in L.A. that perhaps had Frank Butler on drums, Leroy Vinegar on bass, and Jim Hall on guitar.I do not remember the pianist at all and the vinyl record has disappeared from the collection of a handful that I kept after I started really migrating over to CD’s about 25 or so years ago. I believe that the last Tune on the LP was “Night In Tunisia” which featured a drum solo that started with hand drumming and later shifted to sticks. All subject to a faulty memory of course.

    I personally have had for several years now an acoustic 5 string upright bass that has a low B string on it, but it is tuned in fourths (B1 E1-A1-D2-G2). I try to play it for fun when I get the chance to do so and one of these days I will actually learn how to play it half way well.

    Thanks again for the weekend extra.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Several of the musicians Mr. Burrell mentions are together on Ben Webster Live at the Renaissance (1960). Webster’s rhythm section was Mitchell, Hall, Butler and Jimmy Rowles on piano. The album is a basic repertoire item, a desert island pick, an essential part of serious jazz collections. Warning: there is a knockoff bootleg version of the Webster with abominable sound reproduction.

      Another recommendation: Jim Hall Trio, Jazz Guitar (1957). It’s Hall with Mitchell and pianist Carl Perkins. Whoever acquired Pacific Jazz seems to have cut this splendid album, triggering the law of supply and demand and sending its price zooming. However, an import label has picked it up, added tracks from the session and reproduced it with acceptable CD sound. This early album is one of the finest of Hall’s career.

  3. Dick Unsworth says

    I came in a bit late on this one; but it’s never too late to hear a bassist like Red Mitchell. Ask my pal Charlton Price, who listens to things better than I, even when he’s on the other side of the continent. He’d agree that Red plays the tuning on cello strings. BTW, Charlton introduced me to Doug Ramsey. Thanks to both of you.

  4. Terence Smith says

    Such a great video and so interesting to read the comments of Crow, Price, Burrell and Ramsey.

    I can vouch that Ben Webster Live at the Renaissance is desert-island-worthy in every way.

    While we are on the subject of great combos with Red Mitchell: I have no idea how he was tuning in those days, but my first awareness of Red Mitchell was in the Hampton Hawes Trio with such as “Section Blues” on This is Hampton Hawes:The Trio Vol. 2 (that’s the first one I heard) and the other Contemporary-label LP gems with Hawes (and Chuck Thompson). Swinging groove and beautiful bass sound on those Hawes classics from 1955-58! And Red Mitchell was such a beautiful key ingredient .

  5. says

    Such a melodic bassist and nice guy.

    In the 80s, Red used to come to NYC and play four weeks at Bradley’s, each week with a different pianist (Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Baron . . .) Between sets once he told an anecdote I wish I could remember in its entirety — something about another bassist asking to borrow his instrument. Red said, I can’t, man; I tune in fifths. I think the upshot was that the other bassist didn’t believe him and just thought Red was making up an excuse not to lend him the bass.

    (Maybe Bill Crow knows this anecdote and can correct me . . . or provide a page reference.)

    • says

      Once upon a time there was a jazz club in Cologne, called “Duke’s”. It folded in the early 1990’s. Red was doing a duo gig there with Jon Eardley. During the concert, Red also delivered his vocalese version of Tony Fruscella’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”. A few days later he played with Jon and Horace Parlan at the Kölner Musikhochschule.

      Since I’ve met Horace Parlan in my hometown a few years before (there he gave a terrific performance with Sal Nistico, another unsung hero), and knew Jon anyway, I was chosen to show the band around before the concert. We went to a pizzeria, talked about the jazz scene, and about Miles Davis (whom they all were criticizing as a traitor of real jazz).

      Well, I just listened; but I understood their frustration. Jon was the luckiest of them, because he had a steady engagement with the WDR big band.

      Right after the concert, the delicate trio music was still lingering in the air, a young fellow student approached Red, saying something like “You play nice melodies.” Red, slightly pissed: “Don’t you dig my rhythm?”

  6. Peter Levin says

    This concert was recorded on March 15, 1970 at what is now called La Maison de la Radio in Paris and was then La Maison de la ORTF, the national agency that controlled French television and radio programming.

    The producers of the Jazz Session program, which ran for several years, included Henri Renaud, a pianist, producer and all-around factor in international jazz for decades, who made some nfity recordings in New York and Paris in the fifties with Lucky Thompson, Don Byas, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Clifford Brown and lots of others.

  7. says

    I’m way over a day late and a dollar short, but I can’t resist bringing your attention to the Red Mitchell-Jim Hall Duo LP that they recorded, I believe, at Bradley’s in 1978. They each contributed an essay to the liner notes and clearly demonstrated the respect and love they felt for each other. There’s not a cut on the album that approaches the pedestrian level. I think the album was recorded on the jazz label that A&M put out for awhile. (Thad & Mel’s band released one or two LPs on that same label, as did Paul Desmond.)

    Thanks to all for reminding me of Red’s great talent.