As a jazz journalist and historian, there's nothing I love more than a good jazz mystery. Tell me there's a story that has missing facts or hasn't been resolved, and I'm off to the races. Yesterday, when I spoke with legendary jazz writer Ira Gitler about his fabulous liner notes to the new CD, Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Showtime at the Spotlite (52d Street, New York City, June 1946), something Ira said got me going.
When I asked Ira [pictured] why a more precise date wasn't available other than "late June 1946," he said there were no documents to pinpoint on which day exactly the music was recorded. Ira said what was known is that Dizzy's band was at the Spotlite for eight weeks in May and June, ending its run on the 28th. "Based on the band's personnel, the closest we were able to get to a date is sometime toward the end of June 1946," he said.
As soon as I hung up with Ira, I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. After a half-hour of online research and two lucky breaks, I had a pretty good fix on the date. Much to Ira's delight, it looks as if I've solved the Spotlite riddle based on a clue Dizzy left behind: The recording was most likely made on June 28, 1946.
This story starts about a week ago, when I opened a package from Uptown Records' owner Bob Sunenblick that contained a copy of the new double Dizzy CD (a review will appear at JazzWax tomorrow). As I read through Ira's excellent liner notes, I noticed that a specific date for the recording was missing. So I gave Ira a buzz.
"The acetates Uptown acquired from the Jerry Newman estate did not indicate a date," Ira said. "We know that Dizzy Gillespie's big band was at the Spotlite during May and June, and we narrowed the recording based on James Moody [pictured] joining the band. There may be clues in Dizzy's banter captured by the microphone, but they're hard to hear or understand."
On the new CD, Dizzy addresses the club audience twice, both times toward the end of each version of I Waited for You, the band's closing theme. But some of the words are indeed faint or seemingly unintelligible.
"I know," Ira said. "On the first version, Dizzy says something about a birthday. On the second, he says, 'We want to wish you a happy..." and the last word is unclear. At first I thought it might be "Happy Easter," but the dates of Dizzy's engagement at the Spotlite ruled that out. Danish jazz researcher Leif Bo Petersen has great audio equipment and said Dizzy is saying "happy nestling," which seems odd. Give it a listen on your system and see what you think."
I took out my Bose headphones and listened repeatedly to both of Dizzy's announcements. The best I could piece together for the first remark was "Happy America's Birthday," putting the date close to Independence Day 1946. The second comment sounded more to me like, "And on behalf of...all the boys in the band and myself...we want to wish you...a happy nesting."
Happy nesting? Was this an inside joke aimed at a musician friend in the audience? A jab at a necking couple seated up front? Bop slang for "the weekend?"
Or was "happy nesting" more Dizzyish in nature? That's when I realized that to solve this mystery, I'd have to think like Dizzy. Knowing how much Dizzy loved playfully tweaking all things traditional, I wondered whether the word "nesting" was less about jive and more related to an actual event. In other words, was Dizzy thanking the audience in a serious radio voice only to cut up at the end by riffing on some news item?
I went to Google and typed in "nesting + June 1946 + New York." On the second page of listings was an article about the cross-breeding of a white-naped crane. It alluded to a breeding event at the New York Zoological Park in 1943. Could a similar nesting event have occurred at one of New York's zoos in June 1946?
I returned to Google and typed in "New York Times + nest + zoo." Up came an entry with a list of New York Times headlines from June 1946. I scrolled the list, and one particular item caught my eye: "Romance at Bronx Zoo: Wild Gull Abandons Flight to Mate With Tame Bird."
The New York Times wouldn't let me read the article until I forked over $3.95. I ponied up, and a PDF of the short news item was sent to me [pictured]. Here's what the article says:
"It hasn't happened at the Bronx Zoo since 1908, officials reported yesterday. A romance between a wild herring gull visiting the zoo and a tame domincan [sic] gull resulted in the hatching of an egg. The new gull was described as about the size of a man's hand, puffy and brownish in color. Papa gull, instead of heading north when the warm weather set in, has taken up permanent residence at the zoo to watch over his offspring."
The date of the article? June 28, 1946.
I couldn't find a front page of The Daily News or New York Post from that date, but my newsman gut tells me that the tabloids had a field day with that feathery story. Dizzy's impromptu "nesting" remark most probably related to that quirky news item. "Nesting Love Birds Rule Roost" and all that. I checked the calendar for June 28, 1946. It was a Friday, the last date of Dizzy's engagement before the band was due to move uptown to the Apollo Theater, which would have made that Friday comfortable and ideal for a club recording.
Going back to the CD, Dizzy's first remark was likely a Happy July 4th send off on the band's last day at the club. Since Dizzy wouldn't have repeated the exact same line he used after the first set, his "nesting" remark must have been a last-second play on a banal "big news" headline.
When I called Ira back to roll out what I had discovered, he roared with laughter. "That great! That must be it! Until we know more, that's as close as we're going to come to a specific date."
Tomorrow, I will review Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Showtime at the Spotlite. For now, we certainly can change the next line of text to "52 Street, New York City, June 28, 1946."