Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Reece, Dizzy (Alfonso Son)
An immensely gifted trumpeter and composer, Dizzy Reece's career in jazz is a puzzle. Also a writer, painter and philosopher, Reece's recorded output spans fifty-five years, but is interrupted by long gaps. Still active as a performer in the new millennium, Reece remains scandalously under-represented on record.
A thoroughly original soloist, Reece's playing lies firmly within the continuum of tradition but is void of the clichés associated with 1950s and 1960s jazz trumpeting. Reece’s bright tone is uniquely bold and robust, and he plays with an aggressive lyricism, forceful rhythms, and employs a striking use of dynamics, distinct smeared grace notes and flutter-tonguing.
Alphonso Son Reece was born on January 5, 1931 in Kingston, Jamaica. His father was a pianist who dabbled in jazz but played mostly in movie theaters for silent films. Reece was nicknamed “Dizzy” not after trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, but for being an energetic and defiant child. His insolent behavior ended up landing him in the Alpha School for Boys, a Jamaican correctional school famous for its musical alumni. Reece attended the school from 1942 to 1945 and his classmates included tenor saxophonist Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair, altoist Joe Harriott, and future members of the influential Jamaican group the Skatalites.
While at the Alpha School, Reece started on baritone horn at age 11, then switched to trumpet at 14. He quickly developed an interest in jazz, listening intently to records and American radio. Count Basie band trumpeterBuck Clayton was his first major influence, being drawn to Clayton's tone. At the age of 16 Reece made his professional debut with Jack Brown’s Swing Stars in Kingston.
Now a fulltime musician, Reece moved to Liverpool, England by himself at the age of 17, encouraged by his mother to further his career outside of Jamaica. Reece settled in London in 1954 and made many important British musical connections while there, including tenorman Tubby Hayes and pianist Victor Feldman. He also played with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists, Tony Crombie’s big band, Don Byas, Kenny Clarke, Martial Solal, and for a time he led a ten-piece band that played Dizzy Gillespie arrangements. Reece developed a reputation as a precocious talent, but was also known to be a temperamental person.
The British jazz disk jockey, journalist, and producer Tony Hall took a special interest in Reece and produced the trumpeter’s first few albums on the Tempo label. The first, entitled A New Star, was released in England in 1955.
These early sessions were repackaged by different labels for release in the US. Imperial released London Jazz in the US in 1957, containing music from Reece’s very first session from May 16, 1955 as well as April 26 and July 23, 1956. Changing the Jazz at Buckingham Palace on Savoy and Progress Report on Tempo followed in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Reece’s fiery personality shines through in his playing on these early recordings, most often outperforming the British rhythm sections.
Reece’s playing was already highly unique; rarely are a young trumpeter’s influences so indistinguishable. His use of dynamics—softly tip-toeing in the trumpet’s middle register then suddenly blasting into his high range—cause great dramatic effect. Reece’s tone was slightly pinched at this stage in his career, but would open up as he matured. In addition to bebop standards of the day, his early recordings also feature many of his own compositions.
Hall personally sent copies Reece’s early LPs to his friends in America, piquing the interest of, among others, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion. Lion arranged for Hall to produce a Blue Note session in London on August 24, 1958 featuring Reece as the leader, trumpeter Donald Byrd, drummer Art Taylor, British musicians Tubby Hayes and Terry Shannon on tenor and piano, respectively, and Canadian bassist Lloyd Thompson.
The resulting album,Blues in Trinity, was America’s first widespread introduction to Reece’s enormous talent both as a player and composer; six of the eight tunes are his own and he burns through the up-tempo numbers and maintains a smoldering intensity on the ballads. The album was well-received and Lion offered Reece a contract for three more albums. The trumpeter packed up and moved to New York on October 21, 1959.
Blue Note celebrated his highly anticipated arrival by throwing him a welcoming party at Well’s Bar in Harlem. Reece got right to work, playing congas on drummer Art Blakey’s Africaine on November 10, 1959. Nine days later on November 19, Reece was joined by Blue Note label regulars Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor to record his second record for the label, the strongly swinging Star Bright.
More Blue Note sessions followed soon thereafter. Sessions from April 3, 1960 and July 17, 1960 were shelved for nearly forty years until finally released as Comin’ On! in 1999. The great tenorman Stanley Turrentine, who made his Blue Note debut at the April 3 session, shines on the soulful blues “Comin’ Home” and Reece shows an oft-neglected softer side on the gorgeous “The Things We Did Last Summer.”
Reece’s final Blue Note date as a leader was a quartet session with Walter Bishop Jr., Doug Watkins, and Art Taylor on May 12, 1960, resulting in the album “Soundin’ Off.” Reece and Turrentine were together again to make up the front line on pianist Duke Jordan’s Flight to Jordan session from August 4, 1960.
His Blue Note contract now fulfilled, Reece took his services to Prestige and recorded Asia Minor in 1962. Grouped with heavyweights Cecil Payne, Joe Farrell, Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Charlie Persip, Reece showcases his impressive compositional skills with three of his more distinct compositions: the minor burner “The Shadow of Kahn,” the gently swinging “Yamask,” and the Eastern-spiced “Ackmet.”
On the heels of a successful string of albums and with the praise of esteemed colleagues, Reece seemed poised to make a lasting impression on the 1960s American jazz scene. However, he would make no more record dates until 1968. He continued to perform in New York, including a two year stint in Mario "Machito" Grillo's band, but the reasons for his lack of activity as a recording artist remain sketchy and ill-explained to this day.
Known to be a staunchly uncompromising artist, Reece has recently commented that he was unwilling to “prostitute” his unique sound by recording at every opportunity; to this day he remains concerned mainly with creating music for himself and not for “incidental” audiences. In the 1960s he was also discouraged by racial prejudice encountered in New York from both inside and outside of musician’s circles for his West-Indian heritage and interracial marriage.
Reece moved back to Europe later in the decade. He toured the continent with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band throughout 1968. He returned to recording that same year, leading a heavily Eastern-influenced session that featured Mike Longo on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, James Worth on drums, and a bevy of instruments from around the world, including sitar, the tambura drone, tablas, and koto. His playing is contemplative and concentrated over the loosely structured modal meditations and he strays far from his hard bop roots. The session would ultimately be shelved until 2006, when it was finally released by Jazz Vision as Nirvana: The Zen of Jazz Trumpet.
Things began to pick up for Reece in 1969. Recorded in March, Dexter Gordon and Slide Hampton’s A Day in Copenhagen featured Reece alongside an all-star cast of expatriates, including Kenny Drew on piano and Art Taylor on drums and Danish bass virtuoso Neils Henning Oersted-Pedersen.
Some of Reece’s finest playing can be heard on tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s The Flip, recorded for Blue Note in Paris on July 12, 1969. Reece sounds inspired and confident—his tone is strong and clean and his ideas mature and complex. On the title track—a funky, swinging groover that begs for blues licks—Reece counters his band mates’ laid-back blues with an aggressive, brassy tone and a very personal detached rhythmic sense. His solo on “Snappin’ Out” is unquestionably one of his best on record.
Pianist Andrew Hill’s 1969 Passing Ships sessions found Reece teamed with Woody Shaw, a contemporary who, along with Charles Tolliver, most closely shared a similar trumpet aesthetic with Reece in the late 1960s. Close listening to Reece and Shaw side by side on tracks such as “Noon Tide” and “The Brown Queen” reveals not only similarities in their playing but differences, too. Reece favors a bold yet lyrical approach as compared to Shaw’s more cerebral, determinedly eccentric harmonicism.
Reece’s aptly titled album From In to Out was recorded live in Paris in 1970 for the Futura label. The album has a jam session, Coltrane-inspired feel to it, and features John Gilmore on tenor sax in a rare appearance away from Sun Ra’s group. Reece’s old friend Art Taylor joins on drums along with pianist Siegfried Kessler and Patrice Caratini on bass. Possession, Exorcism, Peace followed on Honey Dew in 1974.
Now a trans-Atlantic commuter, Reece made a stop back in New York to record Manhattan Project for Bee Hive on January 17, 1978 with tenors Clifford Jordan and Charles Davis, Albert Dailey on piano, Art Davis on bass, and drummer Roy Haynes. A distinct Monk-influence can be heard in the sharp, disjointed rhythms and dissonance superimposed over the blues on his composition “Manhattan Walk.”
Reece teamed up with fellow trumpeter Ted Curson later in 1978 on the straight ahead album Blowin’ Away, which was also released under Curson’s name as ‘Round About Midnight in 1980.
As part of the original Paris Reunion Band, Reece recorded French Cooking in 1985 with Woody Shaw, saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Nathan Davis, trombonist Slide Hampton, Kenny Drew on piano, bassist Jimmy Woode, and drummer Billy Brooks. He contributed the group’s most ambitious and intricately arranged piece, “The Burner.”
In the early 1990s Reece worked with Clifford Jordan in the tenor saxophonist’s big band and is given ample solo space on 1990’s Play What You Feel and 1991’s live Down Through the Years.
In 2004 Mosaic re-released Reece’s four Blue Note albums in a three-disc set entitled Mosaic Select 11: Dizzy Reece. He currently lives in New York and is still actively playing and composing.
Select Discography As a leader:
As a leader:
London Jazz (1956)
Progress Report (1958)
Changing the Jazz at Buckingham Palace (1956)
Blues in Trinity (1958)
Star Bright (1959)
Comin’ On! (1960)
Soundin’ Off (1960)
Asia Minor (1962)
From In to Out (1970)
Possession, Exorcism, Peace (1974)
Manhattan Project (1978)
Blowin’ Away (1978)
As a sideman:
Suite Sixteen (Victor Feldman, 1955)
Africaine (Art Blakey, 1959)
Flight to Jordan (Duke Jordan, 1960)
Day in Copenhagen (Dexter Gordon, 1969)
Flip (Hank Mobley, 1969)
Passing Ships (Andrew Hill, 1969)
‘Round About Midnight (Ted Curson, 1980)
French Cooking (Paris Reunion Band, 1987)
Play What You Feel (Clifford Jordan Big Band, 1990)
Down Through the Years: Live at Condon’s New York (Clifford Jordan Big Band, 1991)
Contributor: Matt Leskovic