Dizzy Gillespie Sings

This week we’re highlighting one of the most important figures in the history of jazz music, Dizzy Gillespie.  A lot of the music he recorded over five decades could be described as essential jazz, but today we’re going to focus on his “throwaway” tracks, specifically those on which the great trumpeter sang.

Was Dizzy Gillespie a great jazz singer?  Lord, no.  He was, however, my favorite jazz singer.

A great introduction to his early bebop and latin jazz work is the 1995 2 CD collection The Complete RCA/Victor Recordings of Dizzy Gillespie.  We find his Verve recordings from the 60s to be big sellers here at Hymie’s and recommend his album with Roy Eldridge, and also a double LP collection Diz and Getz that collects two sessions with Stan Getz (One also featuring the great Sonny Stitt).  If you locate and illusive copy, Diz’s recordings on the Perception label are all excellent, too – We have just started carrying reissues of these.  All throughout his career Gillespie sang a number or two, though not on every album.  Today’s collection is by no means complete, but its a pretty good introduction.

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Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac, the only album Dizzy made on the Impulse! label, generally receives some of the lowest marks of his career.  Records don’t have to be good to be your favorites, however, and I love this one.  Dizzy’s cryptic chants on the title track, backed by James Moody’s rich baritone, are irresistible, even as its all tongue in cheek.  While jazz in the late sixties began to take itself so seriously as to lose fans, Gillespie was not ashamed to combine the sacred and the profane, nor to record himself singing “Something in Your Smile” from Doctor Dolittle:

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“Swing Low Sweet Cadillac” was first recorded by Dizzy Gillespie with one of his great 1951 small groups, using a unique instrumentation of vibes (Milt Jackson) and baritone sax (Bill Graham) to support his trumpet. Dizzy’s idiosyncratic scatting had already begun to take form on this recording, although it was far less exciting on a 1960 re-recording for his classic Verve album The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie. That recording is more conservative but added latin flavor with Chano Pozo’s conga (Credited as “Chino” Pozo). This is the original 1951 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac”:

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Most of the vocals on Gillespie’s early 50s small group work was by Joe Carroll, a fine singer who even wrote some of the silly songs (“Ooh Shoo Be Doo Be” for instance). Carroll’s ability to sing be bop, rare among male singers, and his personalized inflection influenced the way Gillespie would phrase his own singing. Here are a couple numbers Gillespie sang in the 40s. The first is “Oop Bop Sh’Bam”, written by Gillespie, Ray Brown and Gil Fuller. Fuller joins him in singing on this track first issued on a 78 by Musicraft:

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In the 40s Gillespie recorded with a number of great jazz singers, including Sarah Vaughn. His own group often featured singers, too, including Alice Roberts and Kenny Hagood before Carroll.  Periodically he tried numbers as more of a jump blues type of singer, as on this song which his wife Lorraine wrote. “She’s Gone Again” was recorded with a sextet on the Prestige label in 1950:

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Although Dizzy Gillespie far more than any contemporary would create the intellectual architecture that supported bebop, he is often seen as clowning showman. You might say it was the spoonful of sugar which helped a hesitant public accept new developments in jazz music.

umbrella man

“Umbrella Man” from The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie is a typically silly number.  Gillespie the showman sang some of the era’s most accessible jazz without compromising its substance.  And the songs are funny, like this Capitol 78 from 1949 or 1950. Here’s a great novelty with a title right out of country music, “You Stole My Wife – You Horse Thief”:

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And this is “Ool Ya Koo ” a Gillespie Big Band number, the flip side to Chano Pozo’s “Monteca”, recorded here from a 45 but first issued on a RCA/Victor 78:

ool ya koo

“Salt Peanuts” is a good example of the deceptive simplicity of Gillespie’s bebop. The simple refrain, “Salt Peanuts” (Which yes, was borrowed from a Count Basie solo on the 1941 Columbia side “Basie’s Boogie”), has become one of Dizzy’s most memorable. Here it is in a longer concert arrangement with a truly extraordinary band. This was recorded in 1953 at Toronto’s Massey Hall, and performing with Gillespie are Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

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In the 60s many bop greats settled into familiar groupings which allowed them to really explore their music. Monk’s quartet with tenor Charlie Rouse went through occasional changes but remained static, and produced the definitive recordings of some of the pianist’s compositions. Miles Davis’ second great quintet remained together for four years and their group dynamic led to an amazing sound. Other bop stars began long-term relationships with partners, like Sonny Rollins who starting with The Bridge would retain the same bass player, the durable Bob Cranshaw, for five decades. In this same spirit Gillespie often performed with James Moody, a perfect pairing of complimentary performers if ever there was one.

In addition to “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” the two instrumentalists sing together on Jambo Caribe, one of two expansive world music explorations Gillespie made on Mercury’s Limelight label. Jambo Caribe features several vocal performances by Gillespie, Moody and new bassist Chris White. Gillespie chants madly, channeling “Screaming” Jay Hawkins on “Jambo”:

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The group sings together on two calypso pop numbers, “Poor Joe” and “Don’t Try to Keep Up with the Jones”. The instrumental pieces on Jambo Caribe are fantastic originals by Gillespie and pianist Kenny Barron, but these silly numbers steal the show:

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Gillespie and Moody also recorded together for Norman Grantz’s Pablo label in the 70s. Pablo frequently featured acts Grantz had managed or worked with before he sold Verve Records to MGM, and Gillespie inevitably appeared on some of its best jam sessions. Musician, Composer, Raconteur was a Gillespie-led jam that also featured Moody and long-time collaborator Milt Jackson. The group works through some of Gillespie’s a-list material, like “Manteca” and “Night in Tunisia”, before closing with a lengthy arrangement of “Olinga”, a Gillespie original named for Baha’i leader Enoch Olinga. Not entirely a vocal number, the great showman leads the audience in a chorus at the end.  Because of its length, its presented here in two halves.

olinga 1

olinga 2


  1. Eric Johnson’s avatar

    Hi- thanks for the nice article, but one slight correction: Chano Pozo couldn’t have played congas on a version of “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” recorded in 1960 because he died in 1948. I have been trying to figure out who plays congas on the original 1951 version- that could have been Chano if they recorded it in 48 and didn’t release it til 51, maybe. Anyway, thanks again.

  2. tq’s avatar

    Great choices, but you missed one of my personal favs “sunny side of the street”. A fun cut!

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