Hard to believe that just 100 years ago, most Americans had never heard of jazz. In fact, before 1917, jazz had not fully established itself as a musical genre. But on Feb. 26, 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One Step” for the Victor Talking Machine Co. Victor released those first-ever jazz recordings in March of that year, and the musical landscape was forever changed. During the 1920s, known as “The Jazz Age,” the new genre became America’s popular music. Gradually, it moved from dance and entertainment music to something that these days is far more cerebral.
As if the year 1917 wasn’t significant enough, it also was the birth year of four of jazz’s unique voices: Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santamaria and Thelonious Monk.
In this centennial year, jazz pianist, composer and educator Danilo Pérez has organized a tribute titled “Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Ella, Mongo and Monk” for a national tour, which stops March 17 for an SCP Jazz Series concert at Orchestra Hall. Joining Perez are saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, bassist Ben Street, drummer Adam Cruz, percussionist Roman Diaz and vocalist Lizz Wright. “Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Ella, Mongo and Monk” features both tributes as well as modern remixes of classic tunes penned by these artists. Selections will include Gillespie’s “Manteca,” Fitzgerald’s “Shiny Stockings,” Monk’s “Off Minor” and Mongo’s “Afro Blue.”
Currently the artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, the Panamanian-born Pérez began his musical studies at age 3 with his bandleader father. By age 10, he was studying the European classical piano canon at the National Conservatory in Panama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and then headed to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Pérez has toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra and has played with such luminaries as Jack DeJohnette, Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Tito Puente and Wynton Marsalis. Pérez is a founding member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. For his solo works, Pérez has received several Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations. DownBeat magazine has called “Panamonk” (1996), his tribute to Thelonious Monk, one of the most important jazz piano albums of our time. Of his “Jazz 100″ program, Pérez said, “It was an amazing coincidence that these jazz greats were born in the same year. This performance comes at a critical time in our country, where we all need hope, peace and joy. Music can bring cultures and people together, no matter their age or experience.”
What amazes Pérez is the emotional connection to this project. “My manager knew that I had a special bond with Dizzy and Monk, and brought up the fact that this year was the centennial of their births,” he said. “I knew that this was the universe telling me that I should do something with this. It’s all so appropriate for the times we’re living in. I built the program around the idea that jazz restores humanity, and we need to learn the message of these masters.
“What first struck me about Dizzy was his desire to connect human beings to music. All four of these artists do that, and they make a connection to the present.”
Here are few more words about Dizzy, Ella, Mongo and Monk:
Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie is one of those figures whose presence in jazz was epic. He and Charlie Parker were the architects of bebop. Gillespie influenced countless others, and while he stayed focused on bebop, he also was a major proponent of Afro-Cuban jazz. Through his long professional career, he led small groups but often appeared at major festivals with his big band. With his unbridled enthusiasm for all of life, he saw his fame spread far beyond jazz. He constantly encouraged young players and listeners, even appearing on the children’s TV series “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets.”
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Over her career, Ella Fitzgerald was regarded as the First Lady of Song. With her incredibly appealing voice, impeccable intonation and unsurpassed diction, she also could improvise (scat sing) with the same fluency and accuracy as the best jazz instrumentalists. Early on, she achieved success with the Chick Webb Orchestra (“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”), which she left in 1942 for a solo career. Her collaborations with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington remain memorable as are her many solo albums. She recorded much of the American Songbook, influenced virtually every jazz/pop singer who came after her, won numerous Grammys, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mongo Santamaria (1917-2003)
Considered to be the greatest conga drummer of the 20th century, Cuban-born percussionist Mongo Santamaria started on violin as a child. He switched to percussion, and in the late 1940s, moved to Mexico where he played with Cuban bandleader Perez Prado. Later in New York, Santamaria worked with the legendary Tito Puente. In 1954, Santamaria recorded with Dizzy Gillespie for the album Afro.” Though he’s most famous for composing the jazz standard “Afro Blue,” in 1962 he recorded Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” which became a huge hit and his signature tune. He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
Over his lifetime, pianist-composer Thelonious Monk wrote perhaps 70 works in all. But such creations as his “Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser” and “Well, You Needn’t” have made him the second most-recorded jazz composer of all time (Duke Ellington is the first).
Monk’s pianism featured with lots of dissonance, angular improvisations and percussive attacks. His style is completely his own. A major 20th-century jazz figure, he was one of five jazz artists to make the cover of Time magazine. (Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Wynton Marsalis are the others.) A decade after his death from a stroke in 1982, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006, he received a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize for “a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz.”