"I don't put myself up as a master interpreter of Cuban music," said Dizzy Gillespie, the genius of the upsweep trumpet and other musical matters, as he tapped out three different rhythms he had just notated from a tape recording.
"But the Cuban people know I've been a lover of their music for a long time. Listen to the drummer playing on one. The others are on other beats, but they're all in 6/8."
Gillespie is just back from a jazz cruise to Havana, a triumphal visit for the trumpeter who helped lead the modern jazz revolt in the '40s with his zig-zag rhythms and darting melodies and who is, arguably, the greatest living jazz innovator.
He was sitting in his underwear in a Silver Spring motel room listening to tapes he's made during the trip. The cruise, in May, was the first appearance in Cuba for American jazzmen in over 15 years, and is part of the continuing relaxation of tension between the U.S. and her southern Communist neighbor.
"I'd been waiting for this for years," Gillespie said of his trip to Cuba. His head bobbed rhythmically and sometimes he moved his arms from side to side to the vibrant taped music.
At 59, Gillespie's hair is heavily flecked with gray and his figure is more portly than it was 20 years ago. But he retains the puckish humor and zest that have marked both the music and the man.
In his expectably unexpectable manner, Gillespie started talking about cameras and showed off his Leica. "You know I paid $200 for this," he said. "Bought it from a friend. But after I bought it I felt so bad I gave him another yard ($100). He said Jesus must've sent me. I said, 'Yeah, I spoke to him."
The voyage of the Daphne, from New Orleans to Havana to Nassau, was designed originally for jazz fans. Earl Hines, Stan Getz, David Amram and Gillespie were aboard to perform for the 320 passengers.
But the ship's register was made up mostly of wealthy Americans who could afford up to $900 to be among the first American tourists to stroll Havana streets since 1961.
"Of all the places I've been over the world, where they play our music, jazz, I've been most impressed with the Cubans," said Gillespie, who is appearing this week through Sunday at the Showboat Lounge. "I'm impressed by how they've advanced harmonically and rhythmically since i last heard Cuban bands."
Although the Daphne was docked in Havana only two days, Gillespie said he managed to hear a lot of Cuban music.
After passing through customs, there were nine buses waiting to take the passengers on tour. But Gillespie wanted to go off on his own adventure.
"I didn't want to be a tourist," he said with a sly smile.
In the crowd of 3,000 persons greeting the Americans was a yong Cuban trumpeter named Arturo Sandoval, who from the tapes Gillespie made, shows pyrotechnical influences of Clifford Brown, Gillespie and Rafael Mendez.
"Arturo walked up to me and told me he was a trumpet player," Gillespie recalled. "I told him I wanted to hear some drummers.And he said he knew where some were. I got Ray Mantilla (Amram's conga played) off the bus and we rode off on our own."
They first went by the house of alto saxophonist Paquito de Rivera, knocked on the door and opened the unlocked door. Rivera wasn't home.
"Ray said, 'The guy's probably going to kill himself after he comes home and finds out you were here.' I wrote a note saying I'd just dropped by and was sorry he wasn't there.
"But what was significant to me was that his door wasn't locked. You couldn't do that in Harlem. We used to have three and four locks and sometimes dudes would still break the door down. They don't have robberies in Cuba."
The three ended up at the apartment of a drummer with Sandoval playing with three Cuban percussionists.
Later, Gillespie told critic Leonard Feather: "I've been involved in Afro-Cuban rhythms for more than 30 years, but when I hear the real master, I feel I'm just a country boy from South Carolina."
Actually, the trumpeter has been involved with Afro-Cuban music for more than 30 years. As a 21-year-old, he played in 1938 with Alberto Soccarras' orchestra.
And Gillespie had a large hand in making Afro-Cuban rhythms popular in this country when be brought Cuban conga player Chano Pozo into his big band in 1947.
Gillespie said he talked with the Cuban minister of culture about returning to the country to perform a fund-raising benefit concert to construct a park or school in memory of Pozo.
"Chano is the cause of the music being spread in the United States," said Gillespie, looking into the distance momentarily, recalling Pozo's mercurial rhythmic force.
Even though he tried to avoid being a tourist, Gillespie couldn't resist purchasing 100 cigars, the quota the Cubans set. "I've smoked all but about two or three, boy," he said, puffing on one. "I sent a box to Bill Cosby. I smoke his cigars all the time."
In Gillespie's two days of listening, jamming and general hanging out, he got a close look at Cuban musicians.
They are employed by the government, he noted. None was hungry or ill-clothed. Musicians there don't worry about million-selling records or the temptation of commercial concessions.
They were well-acquainted with his Afro-Cuban works such as "Cubana-Be," "Cubana-Bop" and "Manteca."
Were they ready to play in this country?
"They'd be ready to play anywhere immediately," he shot back. "I'd like to take that whole band I played with. If I go back, I'd like to play with my group and about 12 drummers."