Life-changing jazz albums: Dizzy Gillespie’s Gillespiana

Trumpet-player Theo Croker talks about the album that changed his life, Dizzy Gillespie’s Gillespiana

It’s hard to pick! RH Factor and Outkast both changed my whole direction. But if it’s jazz, then I’d choose Gillespiana. When my grandfather (Doc Cheatham) died, his last record had been on Verve, and they sent me a stereo tape-CD player with speakers that you could carry around, which was pretty hip in 1997. They sent me a box of literally everything they had released that year, new or reissued. A bunch of Roy Hargrove stuff, Steve Turre, some classic stuff, like Ella. They just did it as a gesture to me and my family – they knew I was into the music and I even visited the label, stuff like that. When I was 11, that was amazing.

Gillespiana stood out, from the moment it starts with ‘Prelude’. The record’s a suite that Lalo Schifrin wrote for Dizzy with a big band. Every track on that record is killing. What makes it different is there’s no sax section – there’s a trumpet section, trombones and so on, plus Dizzy and sax. I’ve always been fascinated by not so much specific composers as the sound of an orchestra. The album starts with this big brass and wind intro, and it’s ‘Wooah!’. After, it falls into a swing thing, but it’s like a fanfare. When you get to the break and finally hear Dizzy, he takes a break that is incredible. I’d never heard the trumpet do that. I was hooked.

To hear Dizzy as a soloist in an orchestral-sounding big band inspired me. I had heard him, but not like that. It had been remastered so the sonic quality was super hi-def! Some of it was recorded in Carnegie Hall – I’m not sure whether it was live or not – but the warmth and the air compared to a closed studio is obvious.

I think because Dizzy didn’t write those songs, it puts him in a different context. It’s not standard bop or even jazz – it’s sort of cool bop! Lalo Schifrin is an amazing composer so it’s very cinematic, but with Dizzy as a soloist. It made me think, ‘wow, this can go so far’. It was very different to a quintet or even a normal big band. But it’s still jazz. In fact, that’s my theme of the year – ‘It’s still jazz’. Outkast – it’s still jazz. [Robert Glasper’s] Black Radio – still jazz. All that stuff came out of jazz anyway. Being a jazz musician just means that you have to be prepared to deal with whatever the music’s actually about – versus, ‘We’re in this genre, we have to do certain things in a certain way’. That’s where cats get it wrong in my opinion – you can’t be closed off to what’s going on in the world of music and be relevant. You could be a historian, I guess.

I would put on the record when I was supposed to be getting ready to go to school or take a shower; and half-an-hour later I would be getting yelled at for not being ready. The shower would be running – this was back before I knew about water conservation! – and I would be there with my trumpet trying to play what Dizzy played, all those high registers and fast runs. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew that I wasn’t doing it accurately, but I was getting that vibe. I was fearless in terms of what I would try to play. I was really trying to sound like Dizzy. That approach gets lost in jazz schools. It wasn’t till I was 18 that I understood what chord changes really were, when Marcus Belgrave showed me how to dissect them. Before that, I had learned so much intuitively about phrasing, about articulation, about tone quality, about range – from simply playing along with records. I used to try to play along with Charlie Parker with Strings when I was 13. It was way over my head! But that spirit meant that I integrated all those older cats into me.

I still play Gillespiana to recording engineers when I’m making a record. I say, ‘Do you hear the way the brass sounds? In your face, not pushed away, but spread out. I want that sound’. Plus, the way Dizzy’s out unless he’s in – which means that when he does play, his sound is so unique to the orchestration. I definitely use that – it’s part of the dynamic of the music, how he contrasts with the background. Yes, I still love that record – it’s always a reference point.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

Subscribe from only £49.50 per year

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Songlines magazine.

Find out more