A young Dizzy Gillespie was about to shake the core of the jazz world when he came to Philadelphia for a nine-week stand at the Downbeat Club in 1941. The moment is captured in the new play by Suzanne Cloud called “Last Call at the Downbeat,” which debuts April 5 at the Red Room of Society Hill Playhouse.
The play is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
“In 1941, he was a young lion moving away from the big bands and into more improvisation — you couldn't improvise in a band,” says Cloud, a jazz performer, educator and journalist. “He was a younger cat who was moving into a smaller group with the new ideas of rhythm and the changing role of the drums, the changing role of the bass and the new harmonies.”
Gillespie, who lived 1917-1993, was a North Carolina native whose family moved to Philadelphia in the 1930s. He played his trumpet in several late '30s and early '40s big bands, including Cab Calloway's orchestra, before setting off on his own. Along with Charlie Parker, he led jazz away from the swing era and into the more challenging, and at the times radical, bebop of the '40s and '50s.
Beyond the music, Gillespie was a example of a new type of African American: bold, talented and forthright in an era when it was sometimes dangerous to be so.
“In Philadelphia, along with the great music, there was racism,” Cloud says.
Gillespie became an ambassador for not only the music, but for the State Department. He took a band on an official tour of the Middle East in the 1950, as he grew into an icon of 20th-century music and American culture.
In a sense, it started at the Downbeat in November 1941. The club was a landmark at 11th and Ludlow near the Earle Theater, where Gillespie was previously fired by bandleader Lucky Millender.
“Last Call at the Downbeat,” starring Erin Fleming as Gillespie, will feature the music of trumpeter Duane Eubanks and his band and the filmed recollections of 93-year-old drummer Charlie Rice, the lone surviving member of the Downbeat house band. Rice will also participate in a discussion following the Saturday shows.
“It's the story of jazz in Philadelphia,” Cloud says.
If you go:
The Jazz Bridge production of 'Last Call at the Downbeat'
April 5, 6, 12, 13
Red Room of the Society Hill Playhouse
507 S. Eighth St.