A short history of … “A Night in Tunisia” (Dizzy Gillespie, 1942)

“A Night in Tunisia” is a quintessential composition by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Its origins remain somewhat of a mystery. However, many sources have claimed to have located its genesis in Gillespie’s time as a member of Benny Carter’s band in 1942.

The tune later became a staple number of Billy Eckstine’s big band, which is known as the first ever bebop big band. This band featured, alongside Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan. At this time, the song was introduced as “Interlude,” with lyrics by Vaughan. Indeed, the vocalist herself was one of the first artists to record it, in a slow version from December 1944 featuring Gillespie as a sideman.

Though later vocal recordings would feature alternate lyrics by Jon Hendricks that more appropriately fit the “new” title “A Night in Tunisia,” Gillespie would keep referring to his composition as “Interlude,” unaware of how, why or when the title change exactly occurred. In fact, Alyn Shipton writes in Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie: “Attractive as the idea is to use the piece as a symbol of ‘imaginings of Africa,’ the weight of evidence suggests that the piece existed well before it acquired the ‘Tunisia’ tag.”

Nevertheless, this track shows its composer’s ambition to step away from the conventions of 1940’s jazz. This is shown by its Afro-Caribbean rhythms, innovative approach to harmony and melody, and by its departure from the standard walking bass line of 1940s jazz. Today, the song is recognized as one of the most influential tracks in the evolution of the modern jazz idiom and has allegedly appeared on over 300 CD’s.

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