Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – All this talk about Tunisia in the news triggered a long-forgotten memory about my favorite jazz song and my interview with the composer…
I met Dizzy “John Birks” Gillespie when he visited Cairo in 1987 to perform at the grand Opera House on Egypt’s Nile River. He was tired from the 23-hour flight from the U.S. — but despite his weariness, he was gracious enough to talk to me.
Gillespie, who died in 1993, was an instrumentalist, a composer, arranger, improviser, singer, bandleader and music innovator.
During the interview, he relaxed, holding his trumpet close to his chest. I took notes. Then, he dozed off. (I quietly chuckled, but didn’t take offense. His manager had told me Gillespie only squeezed in a nap during the long flight to Egypt.) The jazz great only realized he had fallen asleep when I began repeating my questions about his popular song, “A Night in Tunisia” — one of my personal favorites.
“I apologize. I’m so tired from the long travel,” he explained. “I wrote it before ever visiting Tunisia. I traveled there musically.”
When Gillespie composed “A Night in Tunisia” in 1942, he was just an ordinary player with the Earl Hines Band. It never crossed his mind that 60 years later, the song would be considered a jazz masterpiece. In Fact, the Recording Academy has added “A Night in Tunisia” to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“A Night in Tunisia” with its trademark blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms and oriental flow was considered inspirational by many, and became one of the signature pieces of his “be-bop” jazz revolution in 1940s.
The song later generated interest for American jazz in North Africa and the Middle East.
Author Norman C. Weinstein so loved “A Night in Tunisia” that he wrote a book about the images of Africa. In “A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz” (you can read excerpts here), Weinstein remembers how he fell in love with jazz many years ago, after listening repeatedly to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”
During his musical career, Gillespie performed “A Night in Tunisia” all over the world; the last time was in 1989, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Arturo Sandoval was on trumpet and Sayyd Abdul al-Khabbyr played the Bari sax.
In 1987 my article on Gillespie and “A Night in Tunisia” was carried by almost all the German newspapers and the English-language newspapers in some Arab countries. It was even carried by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post news services.
For more information on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America.