An extraordinary jazz lineup -- trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Benny Carter and pianist Hank Jones -- was made even more extraordinary when Cuban expatriates Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval surprised the capacity crowd at Baird Auditorium Friday night. Capping its 25th-anniversary celebration, the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program awarded the James Smithson Medal for distinguished achievement in the arts to Gillespie, Carter and Jones; this was one awards show that was neither too long nor too stuffy. All three honorees, in fact, saw to it that the evening was marked not only by wonderful performances, but by almost as much laughter as applause.
Gillespie, of course, led the way when it came to mischievously delighting the crowd. Following a lovely and sensuous duet of "Evening Star" by Carter and Jones, he presented a solitary rose to each (and, in turn, received a kiss on the cheek from Carter). When Sandoval, who can hit notes on the trumpet that only Benji can hear, began to demonstrate his awesome range, Gillespie stopped him, scolded him and eventually walked him offstage. (The two quickly returned, however, arm in arm, all smiles.) And once the Smithson medal and ribbon were lowered over his beret, Gillespie truly savored the last laugh. Head down but chest proudly inflated, he strolled to and fro looking like a cross between a hipster and a peacock.
The camaraderie between Gillespie, Carter and Jones was evident throughout a series of bop and pop tunes. The horns would either divide the melodies into halves, as on "Another Time, Another Place," or act as foils for each other, with Gillespie's tartness frequently setting off Carter's elegance. Jones couldn't resist tickling his mates with quixotic flights in the midst of otherwise thoughtful or romantic improvisations, and the cameos by Sandoval and D'Rivera (who played both alto sax and an exceptionally supple and sweet-toned clarinet) underscored the great contributions Gillespie has made toward popularizing Afro-Cuban jazz around the world.