FROM THE VAULT: Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra

Friday, April 6, 1990

Gillespie_from the vault

Dizzy Gillespie and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra performed in Festival Hall (now Morsani Hall) on Saturday, April 7, 1990.

Two of the great, Mufasa-esque lions of be-bop era jazz conspired together for a performance on the stage at Morsani Hall on Saturday, April 7, 1990, and, surprisingly, it didn’t blow up.

However, one can only speculate about what happened to the minds of the audience.

Vibes virtuoso Lionel Hampton, with his Orchestra, hosted trumpeter par excellence John Birks Gillespie, best known as “Dizzy,” in a jazz concert for the record books. At the time, Dizzy was 72 years old, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient that year, and, three short years after his Straz Center engagement, would die an American legend in Englewood, New Jersey.

When Dizzy blew, his neck and face puffed like a set of billows, his eyes bugged and his signature up-turned-trumpet bell gave him his distinctive, original look. The beret, sharp goatee and dark spectacles helped.

Dizzy, in the scope of jazz, held a special place as a musician and African-American man who pushed himself to the limits of his imagination and then some, becoming a cultural ambassador, a beloved American icon and a superior improvisational artist. Plus, he was so darn funny. Who else could have convinced President Jimmy Carter, in 1978, to record the lyrics for a rendition of Gillespie’s own famed tune, “Salt Peanuts”?

Dizzy, who credits Afro-Cuban Godfather Mario Bauza as his musical father, assumed the mantle of Bauza’s work and became one of pioneers of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz in American music. By the end of his career, Dizzy had 14 honorary degrees and a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award. He’d performed with Cab Calloway, Teddy Hill Band, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and personally discovered Arturo Sandoval.

In 1964, Gillespie put himself forth as an independent write-in candidate for the presidential race, citing his Cabinet, which would include Miles Davis as Director of the CIA and Charles Mingus as the Secretary of Peace. Phyllis Diller, he noted, would run on his ticket as VP.

If only we had a time machine.

Gillespie appeared on more than 1,000 records, and, in this one-night-only appearance, in the flesh on our stage with his good friend and equal legend, Lionel Hampton. Hampton also sported an impressive collection of honorary doctorates and would later earn the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Hampton died in New York City in 2002. He was 94 years old.

The show, billed as “Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra,” played at 8 p.m. with tickets at $19.50. Again: if only we had a time machine.

Building Instrumental


A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

 The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings. This original, site-specific Fin Harp is on display with demonstrations through May 3.

Look closely at the design of the newly-installed wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins—perfect for this time of year in Tampa when dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.


Stages of the Harp: Sketch, Mock Up, In-Progress, Finished


FIN HARP one_life size mock up


harp in progress_IMG_9418_2


finished fin.s

Installation began at 10:30 a.m. on March 31st as a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below. They completed the installation about 4 p.m. that afternoon.


fin harp install w ladder

photo by jeremy scott photography

strings to Straz

photo by jeremy scott photography

Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

FIN case 1


The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave—a vibration—which resonates in the soundboard.

During the reception, patrons tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

Patrons also tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

When our time is up to have this incredible instrument, the Fin Harp will return to Luke at the String Theory headquarters in California to be used in future performance installations. The Fin Harp is on display through Riverfest, May 3, and will return to California on May 4.

Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info for this blog.

To see a free demonstration of the harp and to hear this unique instrument, see the schedule below:

Fin Harp Demo Schedule

April 17- 7pm-9pm (before and during the intermission for Pippin)

April 18- 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 19 – 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 23 – 6:30pm-8pm (before Mythbusters)

April 24- 7pm-8:30pm (before TFO Pops concert)

April 25- 6:30pm-8pm (before Celtic Woman)

April 26- 3pm-4:30pm (before Tampa Bay Symphony)

May 1- 7pm-8:30pm (before Florida Orchestra)

May2- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

May 3- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest


Why Arts Education Matters (We Couldn’t Have Said it Better Ourselves)

We started to write a blog about why arts education matters, but we found we could not have stated it any more plainly than Tony Award-winner Ms. Judith Light in her blog “Why Arts Education Matters,” which first appeared on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Ms. Light echoes why we work so hard to make community outreach programs, our field trip series, scholarship opportunities, and create jobs for extraordinary local teaching artists. The Straz Center is always looking for members to help us bring performing arts education, outstanding programming and community outreach to all people.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory.

Students in a Suzuki Violin class at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory.

You have a standing open invitation to join us in inspiring audiences and artists to dream and discover, create and celebrate.

The following is excerpted from a Judith Light’s “Why Arts Education Matters” blog on the National Endowment for the Arts website.

Why Arts Education Matters

My mother taught me when I was three years old to memorize and recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Everybody laughs, but it’s absolutely the truth. My mother was my first teacher of the arts, and I performed “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” for my father, so he was my first audience. Even at that young age, I had a child’s intuition, which I would now say was a simple understanding of how art and culture affect us as human beings and how we can connect to each other through the arts. That understanding is something that defines my life to this day.

When I was growing up, my parents supported my interest in taking acting classes and doing community theater. My father drove me to the rehearsals every day after school, whenever I was doing community theatre productions, and I went to a performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and my parents even allowed me to go on the train to New York City when I was a young teen to study theater.

My parents’ faith in me at that young an age—and the kind of professional training I was getting from my theater teachers—gave me a sense of purpose, a sense of self-confidence, a sense of discipline. I learned what artistic achievement actually was, what hard work the business was. I didn’t have this rosy picture of what our business was. I was really learning what it would require for me to become a professional.

I was also learning about life. … I learned about having faith in myself and about developing humility. Most people know that this business is all about not getting everything you want when you want it. Since success comes with such incredible gifts, many people don’t realize that, for an actor, most of our lives are actually filled with recognizing that we can’t control things. So I’ve learned, and am still learning as this is an active process, to simply be grateful for what I’ve been given. Those are very, very precious life skills that were all part of my arts education.

I became an actor, but arts education isn’t just about preparing our young people for a career in the arts. I’m on the board of several organizations that work with young people in the New York City area through theater education, including MCC Theater and LeAp OnStage. I recently went to a LeAp OnStage class, and I talked to some of the kids participating. Some of them want to work in theater, and some of them don’t. The program teaches them theater skills, but they also learn about the world around them. They learn about discipline and hard work and what’s required and what they have to do to bring themselves to the work. They learn how they can be of service in the world through the arts. They learn how to elevate the people around them. They learn how to work with a team. By studying the arts, these students are exposed to worlds and lives that they might not have any other way of knowing about or any other way to connect with in their lives the way they are right now. Arts education expands their horizons.

These young people are our legacy. We are passing the torch to them. And I think that’s one of the most important reasons why we need to foster the arts. … I think when we get into the arts as young people, it tends to be pretty much about us and our egos. But as we really learn about the arts we discover that it is all about being of service and all about supporting others in seeing things they would not otherwise see—about themselves as well as other people.