A Jazz Pilgrimage
by Brian Grady 

  Baalbeck, Lebanon—“Wars are God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
The voice, with a soft Arabic accent, came from somewhere in the dark as I entered the Temple of Bacchus. Sounds a bit condescending, doesn’t it? Ok, where’s Baalbeck?…Anyone?

Has anyone in the United States heard of Baalbeck International Festival? 

Baalbeck is in the center of Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. It’s the home of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins on earth. It’s about an hour and a half’s drive from downtown Beirut. 

Somewhere along the highway that leads to the ancient temples, the red and white Lebanese flags are supplanted by the green and white Hezbollah flag. You might recognize it with its image of a raised arm holding a Kalishnokov rifle in the air. Roger, our driver, aged far beyond his 40 years but still capable of witty exchange, sensed my surprise when they first appeared. “You see the flags? He grinned slightly. “You’re in Iran now.”
We weren’t really in Iran. We were in a part of Lebanon that was under an Iranian influence. Part of the Baalbeck Temple site is home to The Museum of Lebanese Resistance, which is actually a gallery dedicated to Hezbollah’s efforts to “secure” the region. The tourist shops sell Hezbollah t-shirts bearing the same image as the flag, sizes toddler to XL.
I was in Baalbeck to witness a wondrous historical event. The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, the standard bearers of Bebop, were going to play two nights on the steps of the Bacchus temple. I had traveled with the band and their film crew from Beirut where they had held a press conference. Great conversations over fabulous meals, Arak (the local anise-flavored libation) and late nights with a hookah; it was a world-class hang.  

Jazz, an icon of Western culture, that original American form, a nomad from half way around the world, would be delivered live to a region thought to be one of the least stable in the Middle East. The U.S. State Department has issued warnings over the past several years urging Americans not to travel to Lebanon, specifically mentioning the Bekka Valley. International intrigue hit a high note when former Prime Minister Farik Harriri was assassinated in February. Many Lebanese, and the U.S. government, pointed fingers at neighboring Syria, which had maintained 20,000 men under arms in Lebanon for more than two decades. This prompted demands for Syrian military forces to leave Lebanon. 

The Bekka Valley is a beautiful, exceedingly fertile basin that lies between Lebanon’s two towering mountain ranges. Every imaginable fruit thrives there alongside vast vineyards and olive groves. Plums, pears, peaches- name your favorite, all bursting with such sweet fragrance my salivation glands spasmed painfully. Pyramids of watermelons lay stacked 10 feet high in the hot sun along the roadside, scenting the air. The locals, I understand, also raise a hefty crop of quality herb used as the main ingredient in hashish. This however was not on the tour. 

Iran actually lies much further East than Roger implies. It’s the territory north of the Bekka Valley that the State Department considers dangerous. To the immediate north and east lies Syria, just one origin of many a Lebanese woe. Roger let me know that until they were expelled back in March, the Syrians operated armed checkpoints every 200 meters on the road we now traveled. Not to be out done, the Lebanese army did the same, so you’d have to stop every 100 meters for something like 10 miles. The checkpoints are now all empty and merely collecting the dust blown across the road by countless trucks moving those fruits and vegetables out of the valley to markets throughout the country.   


The Baalbeck International Festival is an annual cultural event that runs on weekends through the summer. In 1956 Jeane Cocteau presented the debut of his landmark production Le Machine Infernal at the inaugural season. Each summer, as part of the festival an international pastiche of entertainment is presented at the ruins. Miles has played here, Ahmad Jamal appeared recently. Not limited to Jazz, the festival has presented the Bolshoi Ballet, and other international cultural troops. A very heavy history.  John Berks Gillespie (1917- 1993) had played Lebanon twice that I am aware of. Once in Beirut and once on the stage at Baalbeck before the festival was preempted by a civil war in 1975. 

  

 The Stage at BaalBeck with The Temple of Bacchus as a backdrop

For more than 20 years, the Festival lay dormant like the treasures in the National Museum. During the war, some wise archeologists had the presence of mind to cast the collection into blocks of cement, looting and pillaging being expected. At the end of the war, they had a celebration and a ceremonious cracking of the blocks. Like the relics interred in those blocks of cement, the festival was brought back to life in 1996. The mission of Baalbeck is to raise awareness of Lebanon’s rightful place as an international destination for cultural tourism. Not an easy job for a country characterized as “unfriendly” by western governments. 

When invited on the gig I have to confess a slight hesitation. With the war in Iraq super-charging anti-Americanism throughout the Arab world, it didn’t seem timely for a week in the Middle East. 

 Nevertheless, I knew this formation was landmark. Three generations of Gillespie alumni and acolytes on the stage at one time. Slide Hampton, legendary trombonist and arranger, is the musical director and lead conductor. Living treasure James Moody, celebrating his 80th year on this planet, plays saxophone, flute, and vocalizes and verbalizes like no other human being. With Brazilian trumpet legend Claudio Roditi, the reigning king of Cubop, Pacquito D’Raviera and Argentinian Andres Boirarsky on Sax, this is a dream band. Do you like trumpets? We’ve got Roy Hargrove. More Sax? Antonio Hart is here.  

In general, we can say that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity; this band, this venue. 

Islamic extremists, we are told, live to target symbols of western ideals and have no problem murdering civilians to make their point. Why would the band risk their lives delivering Jazz to the Middle East? 

John Lee played bass with Dizzy for 8 years. He’s also executive director of the band.  We spoke by phone back in April. He asked if I was in. I asked if he was worried about security for the band. He didn’t hesitate. 

“We were in Israel when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mall. We talked it over at breakfast the next day. “Dennis (Mackrel, drums) said somebody shot up a mall near his home. Another cat on the gig had some shit happen in his local high school.” 

My mind took over from there…I was stung with the memory of my own family’s loss to a nut with a gun in Pittsburgh. And there was that shooting in front of the Lenox Lounge last time I went there. Am I going to avoid the Lenox Lounge?  Violence can happen to anyone anywhere. And despite what the State Department tells you, it’s probably more dangerous for an American in America then in Lebanon. 

“I don’t let people like that determine my schedule.” John continued. “If I did I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do….think about it, man, and let me know” 

I hung up. I googled Baalbeck.  I hit the link. I called John back …. “I’ll see you in Beirut.” 

Charm, karma, bravado, divine intervention, positive energy… love on the bandstand; are these protections from bombs and bullets? Not in any physical sense, but perhaps in a political one. This group didn’t actually represent American Interests abroad. This is an international organization. A thick slice of a layered culture that’s bigger than the geographic restrictions of any one nation, more influential in some circles then banks and energy companies. This is the culture of Jazz. 

Is it corny to think that a Jazz band can change the world? With the amount of love and mutual respect that emanates from this band, I don’t see how it can’t. Have you ever seen James Moody perform? Have you ever seen Moody and Slide together? Just those two guys alone have so much affection and admiration for each other it oozes from them, covers the stage and permeates the audience. Add to that the immense adoration that the younger players have for these stalwarts, and witness how much they love playing together.  Look at the audience, leaping to their feet at the end of every tune. 
I was at the bar in the lobby of the Bristol Hotel in Beirut when a curious man, an obvious local sauntered up to me quite comfortably, leaned in close, and asked “which one are you?” His eyes darted around the lobby, just over my shoulder. 

I wasn’t used to the idea that there weren’t many westerners in Beirut and had no idea how obvious I was to him. My immediate impression was that he had me confused with someone he was supposed to meet. Then I decided to go with it. 

“I’m the writer.” 

With that I received a tight hug and then a kiss on each cheek. 

“I am Dr. Sinno…you take sin, and I don’t sin, so you put NO on the end of Sin, S-I-N and you get Sin-No. That is me. Now, I should tell you that I do sin… this is just a way for me to explain my name.” 

Cool. 

Dr. Sin, as I preferred to call him, was a local representative of another aspect of the global Jazz Culture. He is one of the Jazz Advocates. An international brother/sisterhood of people that get it. They imagine everyone would get it if they gave it a chance. They have been touched by the music or, perhaps the spirit of the music. Something, somewhere has told them; move this music and this culture forward – this is something important that must be promoted, preserved, and given a new life. I found out later his more official role was as one of the organizer’s of the festival and particularly involved in the Dizzy All-Star performances. 

“I am so honored to meet you sir” he said sincerely, after kissing me. 

I don’t think anyone had ever said that to me in my life.  I got back to thinking he had the wrong guy again. Was he supposed to take some author on a book tour or something? I wondered. 

“We are so pleased that you have come all this way to write about our festival, to leave your home, and come to our country is truly a wonderful thing that you have done.” 

Don’t sweat it Doc, it’ll be a gas. 

Dr. Sinno would prove himself to be an irrepressible bundle of energy. I would find out later that he was one of the several Lebanese people I met on the trip who gave up success in a foreign country to return home to help their country survive the war and to reconstruct. A surgeon by trade, he spent the war sewing up wounds and healing tattered bodies. Dr. Sinno had met Dizzy on one of the earlier gigs and clearly he was struck for life.  This gentleman was like a child the night before Christmas for an entire week. A huge fan of the music, the Doctor’s enthusiasm and energy is contagious. While I wouldn’t speak for a group of jet-lagged musicians, I found him effervescent but never overpowering. At the end of a long week of late nights and endless entertaining Dr. Sinno announced at breakfast “Look at me! Dizzy had puffy cheeks, I have puffy eyes,” pointing at some serious Gillespie pouches that hung below two blood shot orbs. 

  

 
 
 

 

Some members of the band had arrived from the airport in a bus that first afternoon. They checked in and grabbed a few minutes before heading out to the press conference. John had been detained on his way through immigration. It seems there is an international criminal wanted by Interpol that also goes by the name John Lee. He shares John’s middle initial as well and believe it or not, he was born within a few days of our John. Annoyed but still in good spirits, He got off the bus. “There’s got to be a million and one John Lees running around this world, I’m the only one that’s not Chinese.” 

In a few minutes we were on our way to a Jazz club in downtown Beirut. 

The downtown area is often compared to Paris and New York. With trendy watering holes and some high end eateries it felt like SoHo before it turned into a shopping mall. Bar Louie is a classy little bistro and pub that has live music on a small stage. With its stone walls and towering arched windows it’s not unlike a gothic abbey. 

Late arrival Roy Hargrove (hat) receives a warm welcome from James Moody (scalp) amidst the chaos at the press conference at Bar Louie in Beirut. 

The seasoned members of the band sat in typical fashion for a press conference. John took the center of the dais and was flanked by Slide, Claudio, Pacquito and Moody. Vocalist Roberta Gambarini and her road manager, the illustrious Larry Clothier sat at the far right end. John introduced all, with each getting a chance to make a comment. 

Slide set the tempo.  “We are honored and consider ourselves so lucky to be here, to have a chance to honor Dizzy Gillespie’s music and to play for you in your beautiful country.” 

A member of the press asked John the same question I had several weeks earlier… “Were you worried about traveling here? What were your thoughts?” Mr. Lee emphasized the fact that he was not intimidated by pointing out that he brought his family along so they could “see Lebanon for themselves.” 

He told another story I hadn’t heard. Dizzy, the man who played EVERYWHERE was once asked, “What is the most beautiful place you’ve been to?” He thought for only a brief moment before responding, “Beirut.” 

Once the intros were done John asked if there were any questions. The room went silent for a moment. 

“Yes Ma’m” said John, pointing to someone over my shoulder. 

“Well, it’s not a question so much as a request” came the soft-spoken voice from the center of the throng. “You are making a film of this experience?” 

“Yes we are, we thought it was a once in a life time proposition and we felt it should be documented.” 

“I understand, I just hope that the message of the film is not to be the same old story of a war ravaged country with so many problems…that is all I ask, there is more to Lebanon than just this.” 

Everyone wants to direct. 

Mr. Gillespie left an indelible imprint on the psyches of all his band members. Like other great bandleaders in the Jazz tradition he not only drove the sound emanating from the bandstand, he also set the tone for how the members interact with each other and how they would go on to develop and showcase new talent. Like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Diz had a very deep, warm, nurturing side to him. In turn, senior members of this band were key in the development of the next generation. 

When visiting a High School in Texas, Dizzy was told there was a 17 year old local talent that thought he could hold his own with the band. The story goes that Dizzy loved to give young cats a chance to prove themselves, but if they had the nerve to ask to play with his band he’d call the toughest tune possible. Roy Hargrove was announced for the first time that evening not knowing what to expect. Fire works commenced. Roy passed the test. 

When Trombonist Andre Hayward was in school years later, he had a chance to play for Roy who was running a workshop there. Andre often plays with his eyes closed. When he and his ensemble class started to play Roy and his entourage were across the room. When the tune was over Andre opened his eyes to see Roy standing next to him, eyes closed, smiling. They exchanged phone numbers. A few weeks later they were playing together in Milan on Andre’s first professional gig. 

Frank Green, (trumpet) Douglas Purviance, (bass trombone), Jason Jackson (trombone) 

 

Roberta Gambarini recalled her introduction to the band. “I was nine years old when I saw these gentlemen play in my own town of Turino. My mother took me to see them. It changed me… immensely.  I wanted to be a part of this music; I wanted to do whatever I could to be involved in such a beautiful thing. To sing with them now, to be on the same stage with Moody and Slide and everybody, … my god, you have no idea how it makes me feel”. Where words fail, the music succeeds.   

Another aspect of the Dizzy Gillespie legacy was his untiring effort to spread the sound around the world. The State Department tours that brought this music to distant shores opened Dizzy’s eyes, his mind, his heart and his ears. He truly became a cultural ambassador. And, like any good Ambassador, he not only brought his culture to the world but also was able to incorporate other cultures into his own. Anyone familiar with the man’s music is well aware of the Afro-Cu-bop synthesis for which he is famous. Fewer are aware of his ability to incorporate Middle Eastern influences into his music as well. Dizzy traveled the world seeking out interesting, inspiring rhythms. He was anxious to share with his musical compatriots, enthusiastically demonstrating them with his hands; slapping, sliding and knocking them together to imitate the different sounds he had heard. 

It’s been said that Dizzy so well understood his position as an ambassador that he began to wonder if music was the means to a higher goal; bringing people together and transcending politics, religion and economics. 

Does anyone remember the United Nations Orchestra? 

The power of good music to soothe, inspire or depress is accepted in all cultures to one degree or another. The simplest example is the catchy pop tune on the radio that makes you happy for a few fleeting moments.  Protest songs certainly can inspire like-minded people to unite for a cause, but the cause is against something or someone.  I see Hiphop crossing barriers and bringing folks together, I just worry about what they’re going to do once they get there. 

Dizzy and his descendents know of a deeper effect music can produce.  Those that have experienced it acknowledge its power to reach deep into people and to bind them together in a way no other force is capable of. It’s not the words alone, as might be said of the pop tune. There aren’t a lot of lyrics in a Gillespie set. It’s vibrational. 

Front row:  Justin Robinson, Antonio Hart, James Moody,  Second row: Steve Davis, Jason Jackson, Andre Hayward. Roberta Gambarini seated, behind Hayward. Dennis Mackrel looks on. 

The attention that virtuosity demands from an audience leads to deeper understanding. When you are in the room with live Jazz played by the people that do it right, you can not help but to be drawn into the vibe.

 

 

 

Andres Boiarsky and Claudio Roditi

You don’t have to be a musician or even an aficionado. You just need to listen. Close your eyes. It’s even more engrossing. Be consumed. Open your eyes. Watch the audience feel what you feel. Watch each musician as he or she works through the tune, enjoying various licks and runs, surprising each other with new twists in the delivery. Watch Roy Hargrove; when he finishes his solo he hugs his horn to his chest and closes his eyes and listens to  the
next passage. He is enraptured. Watch Slide snapping his fingers, swaying about the stage. He smiles with his tongue out, licking the corner of his upper lip.  A quick nod or a wink to the soloist and it’s arms aloft to conduct the coda. They’re playing for each other as much as they are for you. The appreciation they show of each other is contagious. 

When politicians make speeches they have constructed their statements to appeal to their support base. The desired effect is polarization. Although most of the world’s religions may preach togetherness and love as goals they are speaking to their own flock, not necessarily encouraging the understanding of others. 

Jazz is different. Jazz is universal. You need to be open to it of course, but if you are hit with it at the right moment, especially at a live performance, odds are you will be converted. It’s like Slide Hampton says; “You just have to listen; it’s all there.” 

 

 

 

The politics of unity are a common topic of discussion in this country. The atmosphere is a dichotomy of hopefulness and insecurity. Harriri, the late prime minister, was loved and respected by both the Christians and the progressive-to-moderate Muslims who dominate Lebanon. He had instituted a “Rapid Reconstruction” initiative that was able to accomplish an amazing amount of work in the relatively few years following a long and brutal Civil War. He did what he could to unite Lebanon and was reasonably successful. As a reward he was blown up. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets shortly thereafter demanding the expulsion of Syrian military and intelligence forces, generally thought to be responsible. 

Graffiti in Martyr’s Square, Beirut 

His death sparked new life into the pro-democracy movement that has been smoldering in the country for years. 

There is an air of sophistication to nearly everyone you meet here, from the taxi drivers to the DJs at a bars we hung out at, or the corner convenience store owner. In addition to the native Arabic they all speak French and most speak English. There is also an air of underlying desperation. Not the kind you might think. A desperation to be understood, to communicate what Lebanon is really all about. When I got out and about on my own that first morning in Beirut I stopped into a corner newsstand for a bottle of water. The trio of elder gentlemen hanging about smoking and the smell of freshly brewed coffee reminded me of the parallel universe of Hoboken. The Arabic proprietor greeted me in English. After the standard corner store exchange he asked me where I was from. I had rehearsed the word “Canada” the night before when I couldn’t get to sleep, just to keep things smooth with any disgruntled Islamists. 

“United States” came out of my mouth before I could think. I was never very good at lying. 

He smiled at me and extended his hand. 

“Welcome to Lebanon. You are a very brave man.” 

Again I had the feeling of being mistaken for someone.  I shook his hand slowly, half expecting him to take out a dagger and stake mine to the counter. 

“What?…why?” I was going for nonchalant. What, me worry? 

“Don’t they tell you in America this is a dangerous place?” He sounded almost disappointed. I guess I sounded authentically naive. 

“Yeah I guess so, I just don’t believe anything they say anymore.” 

With that his mustache stretched out across his face until it nearly touched each earlobe accommodating his broad grin. “You are a wise man as well.” 

The day after the press conference we were to head out of Beirut and on to the valley. We were scheduled to stop at Dr. Sinno’s house for refreshments and then on to Zahle, a resort town 30 minutes from Baalbeck. 

Sinno’s house and hospitality were both resort grade. His home is on the upper rim of a mountain range. The house was surrounded by trees heavy with plums and pears. The center hall, which would be the living room area of an American home, was open to the air. It was like having your front porch in the middle of the house. Everyone was in thrall to the expansive view from both the main hall and the balcony. His wife greeted us with cold drinks and ushered us into a kitchen where a table was laden with every Middle Eastern pastry you’ve ever seen. There was enough to feed a big band and they were, as yet, only a septet.  

 

Dennis Mackrel takes in the view from Dr. Sinno’s house while the crew takes in Dennis

From the looks of things, the doctor has got it made. I asked him if this was his retirement home. It was at this point he told me about his service in the war, and that he actually did have it made before he returned. “If I stayed in America as a doctor I would be retired by now. Here in this country things are a bit different.  I’ll probably never get to retire.”                                     

When we reached Baalbeck we were all treated to a tour of the ruins by the resident docent. We walked from level to level, temple to temple, as he explained what each was used for.  

“This was the temple to Bacchus,” we were told. “The priests and priestesses, and those in training, would celebrate Bacchus who is well known for being the God of wine and of course Bacchanalia as it is called. These priests had a very deep interest in the spirit world as well, and of course life after death. In order to experience the very real sensation of resurrection, they would imbibe in opiates to achieve the feeling of death and then rebirth. You can see the poppy flower motif carved in the stone. Bacchus was also known as the god of fertility, which meant that in order to really impress this god and incur blessings, such as a good crop or healthy offspring, you needed to really celebrate the spirit of fertility.  To this purpose these priests and priestesses would imbibe in the wine, ingest some form of poppy product and then have an orgy.” 

“Does this happen after every show”? Claudio cracked from the back of the crowd. 

The whole gang burst into laughter. 

I’m no archaeologist, so I won’t bore you with the full run down, but I will tell you that the temples were originally built for the Roman gods in the second century. It was the place to go to do a burnt offering to your favorite deity. It remained a pilgrimage site for both clerics and the faithful of a succession of religious franchises and, well, here we are with the high priests of Bop. 

It was at this point that I began to really grasp how blessed I was to be here, with these gentlemen, in this place. I’m on a pilgrimage baby, drinking the wine, propagating the faith. I skipped the opium and the orgy but I still feel transformed. Do the specifics of the faith matter as much as the hang? Is it the place itself that brought this altogether? For what purpose? Was it for the pilgrims to worship James Moody? That might be it. All 900 members of the audience came to sing Happy Birthday to Moody. Would you believe they did? Believe me, at the request of Dr. Sinno they did. 

The sun was setting, casting amazing shadows across the landscape and the structures. With the official tour over the band and their new Lebanese friends broke off into small groups discussing what they had heard and seen. I hung back and listened in to a few conversations.  

Moody was running a tour of his own. He gazed up at the wall of massive blocks lined with the towering columns. As I approached he gently put a hand on my shoulder. 

“You know who built this place?” Still looking up, his eyes were full of wonder. 

 “The Romans?” I asked, knowing there was a better answer he was about to hit me with. 

“No, not the Romans.” He looked at me waiting for another guess. 

“Hhmmmm…Oh yeah I know – the Roman’s contracted it out to the Phoenicians.” 

“Naaah! Not the Phoenicians” 

“OK, the Phoenicians designed it but it was all built by slaves.” I was sure I nailed it. 

“No, it wasn’t slaves either.  Do you know there isn’t a single machine on this planet that can pick up one of those rocks?  To this day they can’t build one. No. This place was made by the aliens.”  

Looking at the wall I nodded. As good an explanation as any I’ve heard. 

We had a brief exchange on extraterrestrials and the cosmic origin of man. 

He headed down the temple stairs and gestured a little sign language that for some reason I understood meant “I’ll see you in a little bit”.  

The sun was nearly set when I saw a small group enter the main chamber of the temple. I followed to see who it was and catch some more conversation.  I was looking up at the amazing stones that rose up around me. 

“Wars are God’s way of teaching Americans geography. They didn’t know where Afghanistan was until they bombed it. They didn’t know where Iraq was until they bombed it.” 

Sadly true. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we learned our geography by following the Dizzy Gillespie All-star Alumni Big Band? If only it were Moody, Slide or John Lee that people thought of when the topic of America came up, rather than Bush or Rumsfield. 

They would be onstage soon and this entire dream would be over in a few days. 

I headed back to the stage area where I would be operating a video camera that would be trained on the band as they walked out on stage. They call it the hero shot. I followed them with the camera as they emerged from the dressing room. I felt like my whole life had been building up to this moment. It was epic. They took the stage to thunderous applause. 

William Burroughs said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I’m not going to run down the show for you. You should buy the DVD when it comes out. From what I saw and heard it will be Divine.

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