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"Jazz is a music full of thrilling sounds," he writes. "It can also span the full breadth of human emotion from exhilaration to profound sadness, from love to alienation, from celebration to commiseration. All the greatest jazz musicians have the ability to touch their listeners in one or more of these areas, but, for me, Dizzy Gillespie's music has managed to inhabit all of them, while simultaneously conveying more of the sheer joy and excitement of jazz than that of any other musician." …
"Dizzy was always modest about his own contribution to bebop. Partly in deference to the memory of Charlie Parker, he always stressed Parker's input at the expense of his own. I have attempted to show how Dizzy's contribution was in many ways more important. By being the one who organized the principal ideas of the beboppers into an intellectual framework, Dizzy was the key figure who allowed the music to progress beyond a small and restricted circle of after-hours enthusiasts. This was a major element in his life, and virtually everyone to whom I spoke stressed Dizzy's exceptional generosity with his time in explaining and exploring musical ideas. Modern jazz might have happened without Dizzy, but it would not have had so clearly articulated a set of harmonic and rhythmic precepts, nor so dramatic a set of recorded examples of these being put into practice." ...
"Perhaps because of Dizzy's longevity compared to bebop's other principal character, Charlie Parker, who burned out at the age of thirty-five in 1955, and perhaps also because of his cheerful demeanor and obvious talents as a showman and entertainer, his contribution to jazz's major revolutionary movement has been consistently underrated. Yet in many ways he was a far more wide-ranging, original, and innovative musician than Parker, possessed of a similarly miraculous instrumental talent, but with a ruthless determination to achieve and, for much of his life, a clear sense of direction." …
- Alyn Shipton, Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie
Depending on your point of emphasis, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie [1917-1993] was either a ground-breaking, pioneer who taught the language of Bebop to a whole generation of post-World War II modernists or a turncoat and a traitor who along with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, his primary partner in crime, was responsible for the destruction of the “pure” Jazz that developed in this country after World War I.
As usual, Gene Lees doesn’t pull any punches when profiling someone in the Jazz World that has earned his admiration and no one merits such admiration more than Dizzy Gillespie.
All the reasons why Gene feels this way about Diz are outlined in a three-part feature that appeared in his Jazzletter in 1999.
They can be summed up, however, in the following excerpt:
“This was always his gift to his fellows: knowledge. And his was immense, unfathomable. He was, as Shipton notes, not only a brilliant musician. He was in all ways a brilliant man.”
The Immortal Joker Part One
Gene Lees, Jazzletter
“In view of the respect of so many musicians for the late Dizzy Gillespie, it is at first reflection a little strange that his sometime associate Charlie Parker is placed on a higher plane, held in almost religious reverence, by a good many critics and by that element of the lay public susceptible to their edicts.
A little reflection should clear up the mystery.
Jazz criticism has from the earliest days been plagued by puritanism. Much of the writing about it has come from what is known, often imprecisely, as the political left. Certainly a taste for jazz usually (though not always!) engenders an interest in and consequent horror at the racial injustice of American society, which, if it not as virulent and sanctioned, even legislated, as it once was, is a long way from disappearing.
Puritanism, as H.L. Mencken observed, is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Puritanism is not, of course, an exclusively Protestant proclivity: it has some of its most ardent adherents among Jews.
To those who succumb to it, it is hard to perceive anything as having value only because it is beautiful or exciting, or merely diverting. This leads to the belief that all art is propaganda, a view held by my grandfather. [Jazz vocalist] Abbey Lincoln said this in an interview. Whether she (and my grandfather) meant that it was, since it inevitably expressed somebody's vision, or should be, I cannot say.
But I do know that as an underlying assumption, it leads to the view that art should be doing something, accomplishing something, and more specifically the reform and improvement and advancement of society. It is art seen as utility.
Stravinsky asserted that music is about music. But that doesn't sit well with some people, and those who fulfill Mencken's dictum often resent success, and in jazz, particularly, it has led to attacks on those who attain it, such as Dave Brubeck and the late Cannonball Adderley. Jazz admirers pride themselves on the superiority, and indeed, exclusivity of their taste. And for all the breast-beating that goes on in the panel discussions at those bizarre periodic conferences of jazz critics and editors and educators and producers and others who circle about the art — reiterating year after year that "We've got to do something about the state of jazz!" — the fact is that all too many of its fans don't really want it to be widely accepted, for popularity would end its talismanic emanations as proof of rarified taste and exalted sensitivity. In other words, nothing would displease the stone jazz fan more than for the music to become truly, massively popular.
What the public likes is usually bad. Ergo, anything the public likes is bad; which does not truly follow. What the public doesn t like is necessarily good, which also doesn't follow. These tacit assumptions are often there.
Now, there are exceptions to these generalizations. An artist who is widely admired may be worthy of consideration if he or she has suffered a miserable life. This gets a lot of drunks and junkies into the Pantheon on a pass. Some of them, to be sure, deserve to be there, but the right artist may be elected for the wrong reason. Bill Evans almost certainly would not have received the immense reverence his memory evokes (and deserves) had he been in his personal life as stable and prosperous as, say, Dave Brubeck or John Lewis. Much of the mystique surrounding Bix Beiderbecke grows out of his short and tragic alcoholic life, rather than from his gifts as an artist. Lenny Bruce is celebrated as much for his crucifixion by the "authorities" as for the brilliance of his insights. There is an implicit condescension in this process: I can admire him because I feel sorry for him, affirming my own superiority. Condescension to brilliance is the ultimate arrogance.
America, land of ambition and success, has, paradoxically, an ongoing love affair with failure and premature death. Billy Lives. Jack Kennedy didn't really die, he is a vegetable in a secret hideaway.
Dizzy Gillespie made some mistakes: despite a miserable childhood, he achieved happiness, a stable marriage, and a status as an almost regal ambassador of his music and his country. His life was an unrolling carpet of laughter and achievement.
That doesn't make for very good dramaturgy. Therefore Dizzy is dead, but Bird Lives.
I think Dizzy was a man of genius.
So does Alyn Shipton, an English commentator and BBC broadcaster who brings to the task of chronicling jazz a goodly experience as a musician: he is a bass player He is the author of Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, from Oxford University Press. Shipton sees it as I do:
"Perhaps because of Dizzy's longevity compared to bebop's other principal character, Charlie Parker, who burned out at the age of thirty-five in 1955, and perhaps also because of his cheerful demeanor and obvious talents as a showman and entertainer, his contribution to jazz's major revolutionary movement has been consistently underrated. Yet in many ways he was a far more wide-ranging, original, and innovative musician than Parker, possessed of a similarly miraculous instrumental talent, but with a ruthless determination to achieve and, for much of his life, a clear sense of direction."
The New York Times requires (or at least used to; maybe they've abandoned this folly) a reviewer to sign a paper asserting that he or she does not know the author of the book in question. But in specialized fields, almost everyone knows everyone else. So there is always the risk of cronyism creeping into a review on the one hand, malicious jealousy on the other. Even hidden loyalties to someone or something discussed in the book may influence the evaluation. So reviewing is a dubious exercise at best.
I know Alyn Shipton, and consider him a friend by e-mail and telephone, though we have never actually met. I even did some tidbits of research on this book on his behalf: for example, I interviewed Junior Mance for him.
This does not compromise my judgment of the book. If I hadn't liked it, I would have greeted its appearance with a discreet silence. I think it's a very good book, scrupulously researched and balanced in its judgments. It is also the first biography since Gillespie's death. As for Dizzy's autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, it cannot be considered an infallible report on his life and work. For one thing, it suffers from Dizzy's modesty, the consequence of which is that he was among those who underestimated his importance. Another is inaccuracy Even autobiographies, perhaps one should say particularly autobiographies, cannot be counted on for accuracy. Memory slips. Shipton proves that Dizzy could not possibly have heard Roy Eldridge when he was growing up in Cheraw, South Carolina, although Dizzy repeatedly said that he did. Eldridge had not yet made a radio broadcast when Dizzy was still in Cheraw.
Dizzy endlessly told the story of how he got his uptilted trumpet. He said he put it on a chair at a jam session. Somebody sat on it, and when he picked it up, its bell was tilted up at a forty-five-degree angle. He gave it a tentative try, and said, "Damn, I think I like that!" I was one of the many persons he told that story. But it can't be true, and had I stopped to think of it, I would have asked these questions:
How does a horn lying on its side on a chair get its bell tilted upward when somebody sits on it? Wouldn't that just cave in the piping? And if someone somehow tilted it up, why didn't the tube collapse at the bend point? In the old days (maybe now, for all I know) brass-instrument makers filled the pipe with hot tar, let it cool, made the requisite curves and bends, with the tar preventing the tube's collapse, then melted the tar away.
Although Shipton isn't assertive about it, he suggests another explanation. There was in one of the English orchestras a trumpet player who had eyesight problems. He had a horn built with the bell tilted upward, so that it was out of the line of vision when he was reading music. Dizzy met that man. He may have filed that image in his head and eventually had a horn built to similar specifications. I remember one of his early bent horns; the bell was detachable for packing away. It attached to the horn with a little thumb screw. Later Dizzy had horns built in his preferred configuration and had a trumpet case made to accommodate this shape. In any case, I'll never again accept gullibly the story of that horn's serendipitous discovery. Dizzy was not above telling a good story, certainly not when it was funny.
From the opening paragraph of his preface, Shipton leaves you in no doubt about his estimate of Gillespie. "Jazz is a music full of thrilling sounds," he writes. "It can also span the full breadth of human emotion from exhilaration to profound sadness, from love to alienation, from celebration to commiseration. All the greatest jazz musicians have the ability to touch their listeners in one or more of these areas, but, for me, Dizzy Gillespie's music has managed to inhabit all of them, while simultaneously conveying more of the sheer joy and excitement of jazz than that of any other musician."
Farther on, he says, "Dizzy was always modest about his own contribution to bebop. Partly in deference to the memory of Charlie Parker, he always stressed Parker's input at the expense of his own. I have attempted to show how Dizzy's contribution was in many ways more important. By being the one who organized the principal ideas of the beboppers into an intellectual framework, Dizzy was the key figure who allowed the music to progress beyond a small and restricted circle of after-hours enthusiasts. This was a major element in his life, and virtually everyone to whom I spoke stressed Dizzy's exceptional generosity with his time in explaining and exploring musical ideas. Modern jazz might have happened without Dizzy, but it would not have had so clearly articulated a set of harmonic and rhythmic precepts, nor so dramatic a set of recorded examples of these being put into practice."
Shipton asserts: "I am more convinced than ever that I have been privileged to examine the life of one of the great human beings of the twentieth century."
Alyn tells us that while Dizzy did not object to his nickname in the press or publicity, he did not want it used by his friends. His full name being the rather elegant John Birks Gillespie, his friends for the most part seemed to call him Birks. I must have picked it up by osmosis, but certainly that's what I always called him. I adored the man.
The pattern of Shipton's book is to present the story of Dizzy's life in one chapter, a discussion of the music from that time in the next. But you'd better have a representative selection of Dizzy's recordings at hand as you read. The book valuable without them, but it would have been enhanced by a listening guide and discography. An important collection is the two-CD set The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, which gives a good chronicle of Gillespie's work from May 17, 1937, when he played his first solo on records, Morton's King Porter Stomp, with the Teddy Hill band, through to July 6, 1949, when he recorded Lester Young's Jumpin' with Symphony Sid and three other tracks. By then he was fully developed as an artist, master of his medium. The rest of his life would be devoted to refinement and dissemination.
I remember Nat Adderley coming out of a corridor backstage at some jazz festival in the 1960s, grinning so broadly that I said, "What are you so happy about?"
Nat said, "Dizzy just showed me some shit on the horn that I don't believe!"
I mentioned this to Nat two or three years ago, asking if he remembered it. "Yeah!" he said. "I not only remember it, I still remember what he showed me!"
Shipton quotes Ray Brown, who arrived in New York at the age of nineteen. His first night in town, he was with Hank Jones at the Spotlite when Dizzy entered.
"So Hank says, 'Hey, Dizzy! Come over here! I want you to meet a friend of mine, just got in town. A great bass player."
"I say, 'Hello.'
"Dizzy says, 'You play good?'
"Well, what am I going to say? So I said, 'I can play, you know.'
"He said, 'Do you want a job?'
"Well, I almost had a heart attack. But I said, 'Yeah.'
"He took a card out of his pocket and said, 'Be at my house tomorrow night, seven o'clock.'
Ray would be a key figure in solving the problem of the rhythm section in bebop. In some of the earliest bebop records, the rhythm sections — made up of musicians nurtured in the swing era — seem stiff with the idiom. But, pertinent to Dizzy's function as a teacher:
Ray told me, and Shipton too, that he had played with the group, which included Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, all of them incomparably brilliant, for several months without hearing a word of comment from Dizzy. Finally, unnerved, Ray asked him, "Am I doing all right?"
Dizzy said, "Yeah. But you're playing a lot of wrong notes."
Ray went almost into shock. Dizzy took him to a piano and showed him what he wanted Ray to play; Ray always remembered the harmony lesson of that day. Why hadn't Dizzy taken up the subject earlier? Maybe he was waiting for Ray to be ready; then he poured out the information. This was always his gift to his fellows: knowledge. And his was immense, unfathomable. He was, as Shipton notes, not only a brilliant musician. He was in all ways a brilliant man.
He was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, on October 21, 1917, the youngest of nine children, seven of whom survived. Dizzy told friends and interviewers that he was terrified of his father, James Gillespie, a bricklayer and weekend piano player who beat him and his brothers every Sunday morning, whether they had done anything wrong during the week or not. This didn't break the boy's spirit; on the contrary, it made him into a prankster and a fighter. Taught by a neighbor, a former school teacher, John Birks could read and do his numbers before he went to kindergarten. Dizzy's brother, James Penfold Gillespie, ran away from home because of the father's cruelty. Shipton says that "it is tempting to attribute John Birks's own mean streak to his father's behavior," but cautions against putting too much value on the hypothesis.
I would quibble with Shipton only on the choice of the term "mean streak". I knew Dizzy from 1959 until his death on January 6, 1993, which is to say over a period of thirty-four years. And I knew him well. What's more, I have known many people who knew him better than I did, including Junior Mance, Lalo Schifrin, and Phil Woods. There was an angry streak in Dizzy, but I never saw anything in him small enough to be called mean, nor did I ever hear of it. He could flair with anger, but usually it came on like a sudden storm and passed as quickly. He was the most benign of men, and Shipton takes good note of this, although I always felt Dizzy could carry a long grudge toward anyone who did him wrong, such as cheating him and his band on money, which happened on more than one occasion.
Dizzy learned to play trombone in school. Then a friend next door was given a trumpet at Christmas. It fascinated him.
James Gillespie forced all his children to take piano lessons, though only John Birks became truly interested in music. Dizzy retained a deep interest in the piano. "He taught himself harmony," Shipton writes, "working out scales and chords at the piano and applying what he learned to the trumpet." Bobby Hackett played guitar, and applied his knowledge of harmony to his cornet playing; Hackett in later life was one of Dizzy's friends. And Dizzy and Milt Jackson, in later years, would take turns playing piano to back each other up.
Thus Dizzy was almost entirely self-taught. They are treacherous terms, "self-taught" and "self-educated," often carrying a connotation of untaught or uneducated. The terms mean no such thing. One of the values of formal education, at least in the arts, is that a good teacher can shorten your search time, guiding what is in the end self-education. You can learn to draw only by the repeated doing of it, until the coordination between eye and brain and hand is reflexive and unconsidered. Thus it is with musical education, for in the last analysis, in learning an instrument you are training muscle memory. It may indeed be the great virtue of the older jazz musicians that they were self-taught, each of them working out his individual problems in his own way. As I think I have previously mentioned, I was discussing the question of tone with Don Thompson a couple of years ago. Don said, "I think it is impossible not to have a personal tone." But of course, once you think about it! You approach music with your unique physical attributes. As Clark Terry told me, Miles Davis used a Heim mouthpiece. Clark said, "I could never use one." The reason, Clark said, is that Miles had thin lips and he, Clark, did not. Itzhak Perlmen uses what is considered in classical music a completely "wrong" technique, with the neck of the violin resting in the crook of his thumb and forefinger—the "incorrect" position used by country fiddlers. Eddie Harris once asked Lester Young a question about embouchure. Prez told him, "I can only tell you about my mouthpiece in my mouth. I can't tell you about your mouthpiece in your mouth." The physical differences between Clark Terry and Miles Davis in part explains the difference in their tones; and that of Dizzy too.
In any case, Dizzy was far from being the only "self-taught" musician. So were Gil Evans and Robert Farnon, both of whom acquired formidable technical knowledge of harmony and orchestration. So were Gene Puerling, Wes Montgomery, and that ultimate auto-didact, Erroll Garner. A university education is indispensable to someone who can't find the way to the public library.
But his self-education left John Birks with certain idiosyncracies. He was never restrained from letting his cheeks bulge out, which is by all theory supposed to cripple a trumpet player's technique. But Dizzy did it, and so did (and does) Maynard Ferguson, and no one ever accused either of them of lack of technique. Miles, on the other hand, with good classical training on trumpet, never had the fluid technique that Dizzy had, nor the command of the horn of Maynard Ferguson, nor the chops of Harry James, who was one of his early models. Dizzy did not himself understand why and how his cheeks bulged out: he said they fascinated his dentist. And, Birks said, he had been written up in dental literature, the phenomenon being known (and he sounded a little proud of it) as "Gillespie pouches."
Dizzy worked for a time in the 1930s picking cotton. Then he had another stroke of luck. One of the few high schools for blacks in the area was the Laurinburg Institute, about thirty miles away in Laurinburg, North Carolina. It had a scholarship program for the poor. Dizzy and his cousin Norman Powe, a trombone player, were both admitted without fees. He worked on the school farm to pay for clothes and other necessities, and claimed in later life that he was a master farmer. He practiced trumpet and piano incessantly. Norman Powe recalled, Shipton tells us, that they studied classical music. One wonders what they heard. In 1935, Debussy had been dead seventeen years, Ravel had only two years left to live, and Stravinsky's The Firebird was nearly twenty-five years old. In later years, Dizzy would refer to listening to classical music as "going to church." So one is justified in wondering how much (given his incredible ears) he was picking up from that source. Certainly much of what he and Charlie Parker did was adapted, not invented, the flabbergasted response of later critics with no knowledge of classical music to the contrary notwithstanding.
Early in 1935, Gillespie's mother moved to Philadelphia, and in May, when he failed physics in his final year at Laurinburg, he left Cheraw to join her. Years later, when he was a famous musician, Dizzy stopped in Laurinburg. The head of the school said, "Here's something you forgot," and gave him his high-school diploma and his football letter.
Living in South Philadelphia, John Birks formed friendships with organist Bill Doggett and worked in a band led by Frankie Fairfax. When, during a rehearsal, a trumpet player looked over at the chair where John Birks was supposed to be, he said, "Where's Dizzy?" Dizzy was at the piano. The name stuck.
Shipton traces Gillespie's various affiliations and jobs during the Philadelphia years, so far as it is possible. His leap into the professional big-time came when he joined Lucky Millinder's band in 1937. Shipton quotes Art Blakey as saying that Millinder was a superb bandleader with big ears, though he couldn't read a note of music. Dizzy told me the same thing. In the band with him was Charlie Shavers, who would be an important mentor to him. Living now in New York, he made friendships with Kenny Clarke and trumpeters Benny Harris, Bobby Moore, and Mario Bauza, who would exert an important influence on him. And he sat in a lot at the Savoy Ballroom, where he met Teddy Hill. Dizzy signed on with Hill's band for a tour of Europe. The band sailed for Paris in May, 1937. Just before their departure — on May 17 — the band went into the studio to record. The testimony of musicians who heard him at that time indicates that Birks already had a formidable range, playing effortlessly two octaves above middle C.
On King Porter Stomp, Dizzy that day made his first recorded solo. It is to be found in Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. Shipton writes that Dizzy's solo on that tune is, "in the opinion of many critics, one of the most effective assimilation of Eldridge's approach by any player." Maybe. But I already hear the emergence of the "real" Dizzy Gillespie. The playing is fierce, and focussed with a kind of acetylene flame.
Shipton quotes the English writer and musician John Chilton, discussing Gillespie's skilled use of the microphone: "If you heard him without a microphone he had a noticeably thin tone." Not when I rehearsed with him. Dizzy's tone was thin, knifelike, penetrating, when he wanted it to be. It could also be, with or without microphone, quite fat, particularly in the low register. One thing that struck me as I listened again to recordings through his career was the range of tonal shadings he commanded.
Birks had become enamored of a young dancer named Gussie Lorraine Willis, usually called just Lorraine. His lovely ballad Lorraine is named for her. Dizzy courted her by mail while she worked at the Apollo theater She seemed unattainable, a strong and disciplined woman who was unimpressed by his role as a musician. At the same time, she helped him with money while he was waiting out his New York City union card. She would remain the great stabilizing constant of his life.
The next plateau of his career was the period with Cab Calloway, which began in 1939. Like Lucky Millinder, Calloway was not a musician. But Millinder made his own judgments. Dizzy told an English interviewer: "Cab didn't know anything about music, he was a performer and a singer. He knew very little about what was going on, but he did have a good band. He relied on other people to tell him how good a guy was . . . and these guys were at the top of their profession. It was the best job in New York City at the time ….”
Calloway's was one of the most successful of commercial big bands, and one of the most tasteful. In his drape-shaped white zoot suits, he made himself a figure of comedy, cavorting about the stage, singing his Hi-de-ho, and displaying a snow-plow mouth of white teeth. As a kid, encountering him in movies, I felt an
embarrassed discomfort at his monkey shines, as surely as I did the groveilings of Steppin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. To me it was the same thing, disguised as hip, or hep as they said in those days. Louis Armstrong similarly embarrassed me, so much so that at first his image blocked my perception of his musical importance. What I did not see (and neither did some of the young black militant musicians of later years) is that this was the way of show business. I think I understood it at last the first time I saw Guy Lombardo swooping and scooping about a stage in front of what, as both Armstrong and Gerry Mulligan recognized, was a very good 1920s dance band.
Furthermore, early in the century, not only the blacks were patronized and mocked in show business. So were the Irish, the Jews, and the Germans, the latter by what were called Dutch comics. Ethnic insult songs were common. One of my favorite politically incorrect titles came out in World War I, as the United States tried to achieve some sort of unity of its disparate peoples: When Tony Goes Over the Top, Keep Your Eye on that Fighting Wop. I kid you not. I didn't invent that.
And so the self-mockeries of Armstrong and Calloway have to be seen in perspective: they were in show business, and jazz had not yet been defined as an art form by critics as anxious to aggrandize their own tastes as to glorify the music. I sometimes think that the worst thing that ever happened to jazz was to be defined as an "art form," with all the pretensions and affectations the term entails. John Birks Gillespie, an incredible natural humorist, never loaded the music with that burden, and for that he has been often misunderstood.
The Calloway band was one of the best of the era, and one of the most successful. If Cab in movies embarrassed me, some of the band's instrumental records, such as A Smooth One, rather than Minnie the Moocher, were key elements of my collection when I was about thirteen. Thanks to Alyn Shipton, I now know those instrumentals were recorded at the urging of Milt Hinton and other members of the band.
The Calloway band was moving forward, partly, Shipton relates, due to the impetus of Hinton, guitarist Danny Barker, and drummer Cozy Cole in the rhythm section. Dizzy's Cuban friend Mario Bauza joined the band just before Dizzy. He was to be a powerful influence on Gillespie, deepening the latter's interest in Latin rhythms generally and Cuban rhythms particularly, which of course led back to Africa, and in jazz led to the quite correct term Afro-Cuban. Chico O'Farrill told me that back in the mountains of Cuba when he was a boy, local percussionists played more authentic African rhythm than one could find in Africa, because of their long insulation from European music; the situation would be parallel to the preservation in pure form of Elizabethan song in the Appalachians. In each case, isolation preserved authenticity. Chico told me this was coming to an end with Fidel Castro's drive for universal literacy. And, too, radio made its incursions. Once, in a jungle village far up a small tributary to the Demerara River in what was then British Guiana, I considered with fascination the thatched homes of the autochthonous people; and observed uneasily a young men with a small radio, listening to rock-and-roll.
Birks said in 1979 that his style had cohered by the time he joined Calloway. Shipton corroborates this, writing that "by 1939-40 his bop vocabulary was largely in place, and when he cut his 1939 records, he had not heard Charlie Parker or felt his influence."
His playing made a lot of the musicians in the Calloway band uncomfortable. He certainly made Calloway uncomfortable with, aside from his musical explorations, his onstage antics, miming football passes behind Cab's romantic ballads, firing spitballs, and the like. Yet he was assigned most of the trumpet solos until Calloway got Jonah Jones into the band.
If Calloway did not care for Gillespie, the feeling was mutual. Dizzy found the arrangements ordinary, and he was increasingly restless. But new arrangers were constantly presenting new charts, and I would think that this honed Dizzy's reading skills, which became almost awesome. And during this time, he was at every opportunity sitting in at Minton's, meanwhile explaining his harmonic thinking to bassist Hinton and guitarist Barker. Shipton concludes from the evidence that Dizzy met Charlie Parker on June 24, 1940, when the Calloway band played Kansas City. One of the things I noticed about Dizzy over the years is that he absolutely never referred to Charlie Parker as Bird. He always called him Yard, contracted from Yardbird. Indeed, when I induced Dizzy to write an article about Parker for Down Beat, probably in 1960 (I did the typing), the title I put on the piece was The Years with Yard.
Dizzy was astounded by Parker when he heard him play. "The things Yard was doing, the ideas that were flowing ... I couldn't believe it. He'd be playing one song and he'd throw in another, but it was perfect."
Shipton writes, "Most of those who knew him agree (with a consensus absent from comparative appraisals of Gillespie) that Parker had the aura of genius about him."
Dizzy had far the superior theoretical knowledge; in fact, Red Rodney, who worked in Charlie Parker's quintet, told me he didn't think Bird could read very well.
Birks had married Lorraine Willis on May 9, just before he met Parker. To the end of his days, he credited her with the stability of his life, saying that without her he might have got involved with drugs and alcohol. He meant heroin, of course; everyone who knew him is aware that Birks, like Basie, was not, shall we say, averse to a little pot.
The famous spitball incident happened in September, 1941. Milt Hinton said Jonah Jones threw the wet wad of paper, which landed in the spotlight. By now Calloway was so used to contending with Dizzy's antics that he accused him of it. After the show, he tried to slap Dizzy. Dizzy (who always carried one, even in later years) pulled a knife. The two began to scuffle, Dizzy tried to stab Calloway, Hinton diverted the stroke, and the knife went into Calloway's leg. When Cab got to his dressing room, he found the pants of his white suit covered in blood. He fired Dizzy immediately. The incident made Down Beat, and I recall that this was the first time I ever read or heard the name Dizzy Gillespie.
Shipton says that hints of the bebop to come are heard in some of the Calloway recordings. Moonlighting (with Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole) from Calloway, Dizzy recorded several "sides," as they said in those days, with Lionel Hampton. One of them was Hot Mallets, of which Hampton would later say, "The first time bebop was played on trumpet was when Dizzy played on Hot Mallets." But about all you hear of Dizzy (the track is in the RCA two-CD collection) is some brief cup-muted solo work at the start, and it isn't very boppish to me. What I find notable about the record is that Benny Carter plays alto on it, and did the chart; he and Dizzy would always be friends.
The next major period of Gillespie's life is the time of experiment at Monroe's Uptown House and Minton's. Legends have grown up about these jam-session encounters, sometimes with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. Dizzy recalled that Charlie Christian, often considered one of the precursors of bebop, took part. Shipton writes, "Those with no knowledge of the rhythmic and harmonic changes afoot in bebop were systematically excluded as the musicians on the bandstand played ever more esoteric chord changes and improvised melodic lines built of increasingly complex chordal extensions at greater and greater speed."
What he does not write is equally significant. He does not say that the purpose of these exercises was to keep the "white boys" off the bandstand, which myth has been oft repeated. It is preposterous on the face of it, first of all for its assumption that men of the intellectual grandeur of Parker and Gillespie would put in that kind of thought and study and practice for the mere malicious purpose of racial exclusion. If Dizzy had angers, as he did, he was far above a simplistic racism. Furthermore, he and Parker never excluded whites from their company and their groups. Al Haig, Red Rodney, Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods, Lalo Schifrin, and Mike Longo, among others, came into their orbit and fellowship, and Dizzy, the ever-compulsive teacher, went to considerable lengths to show them what he was doing. And anyway, a skilled arranger could analyze what was going on at Minton's.
What is certain is that in the Monroe's-Minton's experiments, the key figures did not welcome fools gladly. One fool who would jump up on the bandstand and, despite spectacular lack of talent, have the temerity to play with Parker and Gillespie, was a tenor player Dizzy nicknamed Demon. I asked Dizzy about this guy.
"Demon," Birks said. "He was the original freedom player: freedom from melody, freedom from harmony, and freedom from rhythm."
Shipton notes that, besides Monroe's and Minton's, one of the significant locales in the ongoing experimentation was the apartment at 2040 Seventh Avenue that Dizzy and Lorraine took after their marriage. Dizzy told me that Lorraine disapproved of Charlie Parker, because of his chaotic way of life, probably fearful that he would influence Dizzy. Most of those I have met who knew him (Dizzy could never believe that I'd never met "Yard") liked him a lot. Dizzy would be sitting at his upright piano, writing down whatever he and Parker were working out. Lorraine would come home and tell Parker to leave. "Yard" would walk to the door, still playing his horn, Lorraine would shut the door behind him, and he would stand in the hall, still blowing, as Dizzy wrote out the material they were working on. How often this happened, I don't know; I remember only how I laughed at the images when Birks told me the story. (Is it one of his humorous inventions? I cannot say.)
There is a hiatus in the recorded history of bebop's evolution, due to the recording ban tyrannically imposed by James Caesar Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians. It lasted more than a year, creating an illusion that jazz (not just bebop) moved forward in one great leap. This seems to have happened to the Woody Herman band as well. When it went back to recording, it reflected some of the innovations of Parker and Gillespie, including an exuberant wildness with band members shouting encouragement to each other and behaving in a goofy manner The unison trumpet soli section of Caldonia was widely purported to be a Gillespie solo. It was actually a Neal Hefti solo that all the other trumpet players picked up and played in unison with him. It was, however, Neal told me, very much in Dizzy's manner, for he and all the rest of the band's trumpet section were mad for Dizzy. Dizzy had in fact written for Woody and even played with the band as a sub for a time in early 1942. Dizzy wrote three charts for the band, including Down Under, which Woody recorded in July of that year, Swing Shift, and Woody 'n' You. The latter two were not recorded. Down Under is startlingly ahead of its time, and Woody was so impressed by Gillespie's writing that he encouraged him to give up playing to devote himself to it. "I'm glad he ignored me," Woody told me.
After writing for Woody, Dizzy spent a short period with the Les Kite band and then a second stint with Lucky Millinder, who — musicians testified he would fire a man for no other reason than sudden whim — dropped him, then tried to rehire him. But Dizzy was working steadily in Philadelphia, and commuting to New York to sit in with, among others, Charlie Parker, at Kelly's Stable. Ira Gitler noted that Birks paid a six-dollar train fare to play a ten-dollar job.
Dizzy was further revealing his complete lack of color bias. In Philadelphia, he worked with Stan Levey. Dizzy took up a pair of drumsticks to teach the young drummer some of the ideas he and Kenny Clarke had developed, once again illustrating that generosity with knowledge that was one of his most admirable characteristics. This must be seen against the pattern of selfishness in early jazz musicians; some trumpeters played with a kerkchief over the right hand to prevent others from "stealing" their stuff.
Early in 1943, Dizzy joined the Earl Hines band; so did Charlie Parker The band was thus a, well, Hot House in the evolution of bebop, in spite of the fact that Earl Hines didn't much care for what the two of them were doing, even though he had himself been a radical innovator and, further irony, directly influenced two of the major players in the emerging musical movement: Bud Powell and Al Haig.
John Birks Gillespie was poised on the verge of a revolution."
(To be continued)...
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The Immortal Joker
The Jazzletter, March, 1999
"Few trumpeters have ever been blessed with so much technique. Gillespie never merely started a solo, he erupted into it. A good many bebop solos begin with four- and eight-bar breaks, and Gillespie, taking full advantage of this approach . . . would hurl himself into the break, after a split second pause, with a couple of hundred notes that corkscrewed through several octaves, sometimes in triple time, and were carried, usually in one breath, past the end of the break and well into the solo itself. Gillespie's style at the time gave the impression — with its sharp, slightly acid tone, its cleavered phrase endings, its efflorescence of notes, and its brandishings in the upper register—of being constantly on the verge of flying apart. However, his playing was held together by his extraordinary rhythmic sense.
- Whitney Balliett [Emphasis mine]
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is fond of saying about Jazz: “Change the rhythm and you change the music.”
When applied to Dizzy Gillespie this saying becomes an Absolute because no one has ever changed the rhythms of Jazz more than John Birks Gillespie.
Part two of Gene Lee’s piece on Dizzy talks about rhythm in general and the various ways in which Dizzy altered Jazz’s metronomic pulse sending it in new and different directions.
To be sure, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Clarke and the other fathers of modern Jazz gave new shape to harmony in Jazz, but the ways in which Diz went on to broadened the heartbeat of Jazz with Afro-Cuban, Brazilian Bossa Nova and Caribbean beats may have been an even greater contribution to the shaping of Jazz.
Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” had no greater advocate than Dizzy Gillespie.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty "—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
“‘This admired aphorism of Keats baffled me as a child, and now I know it is preposterous. Truth is what lies in the mass graves of Kosovo, and it is not beautiful.’
All we know is not all we need to know, but it is all we're ever going to get. We know only the brain's solipsistic processing of vibrations. In the frequencies of light, they are processed as vision, interpreted as colors. We have no way of knowing whether you process the frequency of yellow into what I would call green and I process what you call blue into what I call red. Instruments, but not we, can detect vibrations in the radio and x-ray frequencies, leading to major advances in astronomy, although as has been observed — I think by Sir James Jeans — the universe is not only stranger than you think, it is stranger than you can think.
When one touches an object with a fingertip and finds it hot or cold, your nerve endings are merely reacting to the frequency of molecular motion within it. When we process vibrations in an approximate frequency range of 100 to 15,000 cycles, we call it sound, and by a process of its coherent organizing, we make what we call music.
All beginning music students are taught that it is made up of three elements, melody, harmony, and rhythm. This is a usage of convenience, like Newton's physics, but in a higher sense it is wrong. Music consists of only one element, rhythm, for when you double the frequency of the vibration of A 440, to get A 880, you have jumped the tone up an octave, and other mathematical variants will give you all the tones of the scale. As for harmony, the use of several tones simultaneously, this too is a rhythmic phenomenon, for the beats put out by the second tone reinforce (or interfere with) those of the first. The complexities of interaction of the rhythms in a five-note chord make for the richness of its sound. In the end, perception, life itself, is rhythm, an insight I had about thirty years ago listening to the Oscar Peterson trio during a matinee at the Black Hawk in San Francisco.
At the intermission, I stood in the sun on the sidewalk with Ray Brown, pouring out to him what I had perceived: that this, this pulse of that music, was like the turning of the seasons, the planets, the galaxies, the very heartbeat of the universe.
Ray moved in close, peered into my eyes, and with a wry smile said, "What have you been smoking?"
But I was not wrong. Everything — everything, our pathetic perception of the universe itself — is rhythm.
Melody, harmony, and rhythm are all to be found within a single sound. Music is what the brain makes of the ordered processing of vibrations, i.e. rhythms. When you strike a guitar or bass or violin string, you seemingly hear one sound. But you hear many. The basic tone, the fundamental, is caused by the vibration of the string along its whole length. But that vibration subdivides, and in fast action photography, you can detect this phenomenon. There is a second vibration that is half the length of the string. It produces the first overtone. The next vibration divides the string into three parts, a sort of long S shape, giving the second overtone.
It is almost impossible not to know the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do scale, that is to say the major scale. If you look at a piano, and start at middle C, which is the white note immediately below the grouping of two black keys, and go up the scale until you get to the C above it, you've played the do-re-mi scale in the key of C. In western harmony, chords are traditionally built by playing every other note, skipping the one in between: do-mi-so gives you a chord called the major triad. But re-fa-la gives you a minor triad. The major scale contains two major and three minor triads. Musicians think of the tones of a scale not as do-re-mi but in numbers, 1-2-3. So a simple C triad is made up of the 1,3, and 5 of the scale. The two tones C and E constitute a major third. The interval 1 to 5 is called a perfect fifth.
It is the overtone series that determines our scale and harmonic system, and the timbre of our musical instruments. The overtones contained in a low C pile up in this series: C Cl G (the fifth of the scale) C2 E (the third), G2, B-flat C3, D, E, and an "out of tune" F-sharp (the raised eleventh— and also the flatted fifth), and more above that. Many musicians can actually hear a long way up the overtone series. If you analyze the lower tones in the series, you will see that they give you a dominant-seventh chord, the most gravitational in western music. Its natural tendency is to go to the chord built on the I of the scale, called the tonic triad.
Harmonic development in the vocabulary of Western music proceeded up the overtone series. Early music was triadic, and conventional country-and-western music still is. But composers began using more complex harmonies as time went on, and often they were considered crazy for doing so: the Fifth Symphony was called by some the final proof that Beethoven was insane. A Paris critic wrote: "Beethoven took a liking to uneuphonious dissonances because his hearing was limited and confused. Accumulations of notes of the most monstrous kind sounded in his head as acceptable and well-balanced combinations." Similar things would be said of Parker and Gillespie.
By the time of Richard Strauss, composers were using the harmonic extensions implicit in the overtone series. Debussy refined the method, arriving at the view that a chord didn't have to be "going" anywhere, as in Germanic music, but had meaning in and of itself. This produced a floating quality, which passed in time into the Claude Thornhill band, the writing of Gil Evans, the work of Miles Davis at his greatest period, and more.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Mel Powell, who during the period when Dizzy was doing his deepest experimenting, was writing and playing piano for Benny Goodman. I reported this conversation in a Jazzletter piece on Mel. Part of it bears review in the present context.
I said, "When I was a kid, classical music and jazz were looked on as two separate musics, and when some of the guys went to conservatories, why, jazz was being corrupted. But I have become more and more aware that a lot of the early people, such as James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion Smith, had good training. You can hear the roots of stride in Chopin and that set of variations Schumann wrote on his wife's maiden name. The left hand pattern.
Even the trumpet players had good brass training. The myth of separate, competitive musics doesn't make sense."
"Of course," Mel said. "I never took the separatism seriously, I thought it was merely a way of making bad use of bad categories. I remember there was a guitarist, I wish I could remember his name, a jazz player, he was the first one I ever heard play excerpts of Wozzeck"
"Yes! I was stunned. This was in the thirties."
"That he even knew Wozzeck ..."
"There wasn't a player in the New York Philharmonic who knew it, I can guarantee you. The fact is that not only the eighteenth and nineteenth century had been exploited and explored by a lot of early jazz players—I'm talking about Fats Waller and so on, not today's kids who are in the atmosphere of college. You're exactly right. Jazz and classical music were looked on as very different because of the sociological, not the musical, environment.
"When I think of Bix and In a Mist and so on, I want to say that the jazz player could be counted on to respond more intelligently to the more interesting advanced, serious music, than any of the so-called classical players. I loathe the term 'classical', it's a misnomer, but you know what I mean."
"Yes, but we're stuck with it, as we're stuck with the term 'jazz.'"
"Yes. But the jazz player, unquestionably, even if he only said, 'My God, dig those changes!' was responding in a far more profound sense to everything advanced than the classical players."
"Did Earl Hines know the legit repertoire?"
Emphatically: "Yes!" Then: "It was a narrow range, by which I mean he knew some Beethoven, some Brahms. He certainly knew some Scarlatti and some Bach. I heard him play some Chopin. You don't have the technique that Earl had out of the gutter, don't kid yourself. He was a startling player."
I said, "Don Redman was a schooled musician, Lunceford was a schooled musician. Bix was listening to Stravinsky."
"No question," Mel said. "You can note it from his piano pieces."
"Now," I said, "all those guys were becoming aware of the movements in modern music in the 1920s. William Grant Still was studying with Varese by 1927. The harmony in dance bands became more adventurous through the 1930s until you got Boyd Raeburn in the '40s, and Bob Graettinger's City of Glass for Kenton, which sounded radical to me at the time but no longer does. I can't believe that the arrangers were not aware of all that was going on with the extension of harmony in European music. Bill Challis was starting to use some of that stuff when he was writing for Goldkette. Is there an answer to this question: were the writers waiting for the public to catch up?"
"I think I'll surprise you," Mel said. "They were waiting for the bandleaders to catch up. The bandleaders were much more aware of what a negotiable commodity was." He chuckled. "When an arrangement would be brought in and rejected because 'That's too fancy,' that was a signal that I was no longer welcome. So I meant exactly what I said. If the arrangers were waiting for anything, they were waiting for the bandleaders."
"Okay Given Benny Goodman's inherent conservatism, I am surprised that he welcomed what you wrote. Because some of it was very radical. Mission to Moscow is radical for the period."
"Yeah. It gets close to peril," he said. "Now, why would Benny respond very favorably to that? And also, by the way, to Eddie Sauter. I don't think we did this out of slyness. The clarinet music was very interesting. And it was great fun for Benny to play. Yes. Mission to Moscow, he had this duet with the piano. So he would put up with these quasi-innovations. I thought that Eddie Sauter brought in some of the most inventive, imaginative things. Eddie was really devoted less to composition than he was to arranging, in the best, deepest sense of 'ranging'. He was really given over to that. I can recall rehearsals when Eddie Sauter would bring music to us, and it would be rejected. A lot was lost. On some pieces that we do know—for example his arrangement for You Stepped Out of a Dream, which I always regarded as a really advanced, marvelous kind of thing—Benny would thin it out. And sometimes get the credit for it being a hit, getting it past the a&r men. I don't think the thinning out was an improvement. Quite the contrary. I think that Eddie, and I to a lesser degree, were exploring harmonic worlds that ought to have been encouraged, rather than set aside."
Goodman, of course, was one of those who hated bebop.
And what did the Goodman and others hate? They hated its harmonic practices, including the use of extensions that had been common in European classical music for more than half a century: jazz has always played harmonic catchup to classical music. Indeed, "classical" music by then included the work of Schoenberg, Webem, Berg, not to mention Edgard Varese, with whom Parker wanted to study.
But this was not the only thing about bebop that was disconcerting. Parker and Gillespie "evened out" the eighth notes, which is to say they did away with the strong stress of doo-BAH-doo-BAH-doo-BAH; and to the ears of a John Hammond, this didn't swing. To younger ears, unburdened by preconception, it swung more. But beyond that, Parker and Gillespie developed some really odd uses of stress points, and started and stopped phrases in unexpected places. To anyone used to Bach, this presented nothing really unsettling — laden with surprises, to be sure, but exciting for just that reason — but disoriented many older (and even some younger) listeners and musicians, Others perceived and admired what they were doing, among them Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins, after his Body and Soul record, and with his penchant for exploring the harmonic contents of a song, was a sort of proto-bopper, as was Mel Powell. Aware of and interested in new developments in classical music as well as jazz (and in graphic art; he haunted museums), Hawkins welcomed the innovators, and in February 1944, recorded with a band that included Dizzy, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, and Budd Johnson.
In the Earl Hines band, Parker and Gillespie continued their explorations, refining Salt Peanuts, which Dizzy and Kenny Clarke had developed earlier, and polishing A Night in Tunisia, which had begun life with the title Interlude. Dizzy also wrote the arrangement of East of the Sun that Sarah Vaughan recorded with the band. And Hines, whatever his misgivings, allowed Gillespie and Parker to use his band as a laboratory for their ideas, with Dizzy of course doing the writing. Dizzy adored Hines, giving him a respect he never held for Cab Calloway. Hines was a musician.
In August 1943, the Hines band's singer Billy Eckstine left the group, and nine of the musicians went with him, including Dizzy and probably Charlie Parker. Eckstine planned to form his own band with these men as the core of it, but that band did not immediately materialize, and Dizzy went back to freelancing in New York. Billy Taylor, yet another of the musicians to whom Gillespie became a solicitous mentor, said, "Of all the people who were taking part in this bebop revolution, Dizzy was the one who really intellectualized it." In the last months of 1943 and into 1944, Dizzy and bassist Oscar Pettiford led a group at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Their pianist was a young man born in Sicily named Giacinto Figlia, who changed it to George Wallington, wrote some bebop anthems, including Godchild and Lemon Drop, then walked away from music to go into his family's air-conditioning business.
Early in 1944, Eckstine was able to launch his band. Its personnel at various times included Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and Art Blakey. Dizzy was its musical director and chief arranger, a role he took up at the behest of Billy Shaw, head of the Shaw booking agency, who promised that if he did the job well, the agency would back him in his own big band. The Eckstine band's legacy on records is thin; it was poorly recorded on the independent Deluxe label. But in the memory of those who played in it and heard it, it was an inspired band, and the final great training camp for the bebop movement. Art Blakey remembered it, in a radio interview with the British writer Charles Fox, as a really crazy band, with Gillespie and Parker the chief clowns and Sarah Vaughan their willing foil. Blakey was shocked by the profanity in use; Eckstine told him he'd better get used to it, and in later years Blakey marvelled in memory at the magnificent spirit and dedication of the band. The band survived until 1947, but Dizzy left it early in 1945.
In mid-January, he joined the highly experimental Boyd Raeburn band, both on trumpet and as arranger The band included Oscar Pettiford, Benny Harris, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff, Shelly Manne, and Johnny Mandel. Dizzy was also freelancing as a writer. In January, he was voted "new trumpet star" in the Esquire poll, putting the lie to the theory of general public and critical rejection of bebop, and took part in a network broadcast from Carnegie Hall set up to publicize the winners. In May 1945, he and Charlie Parker performed together at Town Hall with Al Haig, Curley Russell, and Max Roach.
By now the message of bop had spread. Bluebird CD 2177-2-RB, titled The Bebop Revolution, chronicles some of that expansion. (Some tracks duplicate those in the Gillespie 2-CD set mentioned in the previous issue.) A group called the 52nd Street All-Stars, in a Denzil Best tune titled Allens Alley, features Pete Brown (a favorite of Paul Desmond's) and Allen Eager on tenor. The music hangs between swing and bop. It was recorded February 27, 1946. Six months later, on September 5, 1946, a group billed as Kenny Clarke and his 52nd Street Boys recorded Epistrophy (by Monk and Clarke), 52nd Street Theme (by Monk), Oop-Bop-Sh-Bam (by Dizzy and Gil Fuller), and Clarke's own Royal Roost. Clarke was an incomparable drummer, and at that point nobody even came close to his fluency in the new idiom. The influence of Gillespie on Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham is inescapable, but even more obvious is that of Parker on Sonny Stitt's alto work. In places he even has Bird's sound. There is some marvelous Bud Powell on these tracks.
As for Dizzy during this period, Alyn Shipton quotes Whitney Balliett:
"Few trumpeters have ever been blessed with so much technique. Gillespie never merely started a solo, he erupted into it. A good many bebop solos begin with four- and eight-bar breaks, and Gillespie, taking full advantage of this approach . . . would hurl himself into the break, after a split second pause, with a couple of hundred notes that corkscrewed through several octaves, sometimes in triple time, and were carried, usually in one breath, past the end of the break and well into the solo itself. Gillespie's style at the time gave the impression — with its sharp, slightly acid tone, its cleavered phrase endings, its efflorescence of notes, and its brandishings in the upper register—of being constantly on the verge of flying apart. However, his playing was held together by his extraordinary rhythmic sense."
Given the ultimate impossibility of describing music in words, Balliett's description comes as close as one can imagine to capturing Dizzy. And he is quite right about Dizzy's uncanny coherence, the rhythmic equivalent of absolute pitch. Once in Paris Quincy Jones said to me that Dizzy played like a drummer, with the notes in pitch. I don't think jazz has ever known anyone with Dizzy's infallible rhythmic sense, and he influenced generations of drummers.
The qualities described by Balliett are all evident in a date Dizzy led in February, 1946, to be found in the RCA two-CD package previously mentioned. The personnel included Gillespie, Don Byas on tenor, Milt Jackson on vibes, Al Haig on piano, Bill DeArango, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; and J.C. Heard, drums. The tunes are Monk's 52nd Street Theme, A Night in Tunisia, by Dizzy and Frank Paparelli, Ol' Man Rebop, by Leonard Feather, and Anthropology, by Parker and Gillespie. Dizzy's flying gyrations are simply amazing, and deeply exciting. His powers of invention and execution were awesome. Years later, listening to him in clubs, I used to marvel at not only his thinking but the co-ordination of mind and neurotransmitters and muscle that permitted such instantaneous flowing realization of his imaginings.
After a series of successful appearances with Charlie Parker, Dizzy, creature of the big-band era, assembled an eighteen-piece unit to go on the road. In July of that year, after a rehearsal of quintet material expanded to full band and some new material from Gil Fuller, they began a tour that featured the Nicholas Brothers, under the title "Hep-sations of 1945." They toured the south, sleeping in the homes of black families forming a sort of circuit for travelling blacks, who simply could not get into the hotels in those days. White audiences weren't interested in the band, and black audiences were baffled by bebop. It was not, they said, music they could dance to, and Dizzy, according to Alyn Shipton, was not comfortable onstage during this tour. By late September, Dizzy put aside his ambitions to have a big band, and he returned to small-group work in New York.
By now, Miles Davis was with Charlie Parker's quintet. But Parker and Gillespie were reunited for a famous sojourn at Billy Berg's Club in Los Angeles. Dizzy hired Ray Brown on bass, Milt Jackson on vibes, Al Haig on piano, and Stan Levey on drums. The booking called for only five men, but Milt Jackson was his safety in the event that Parker did not show up.
Legend has it that the Billy Berg engagement was a disaster, but those who were present say that the club was packed every night, particularly with musicians, who had heard elements of bop from, among others, Howard McGhee. One of those who came by was Art Tatum; another was Ernie Royal. But Parker, heavily addicted to heroin, behaved erratically, as Dizzy had feared he might, and when the band returned to New York on February 9, Parker missed the flight. He remained behind and was eventually admitted to the Camarillo State Hospital, where he stayed from August 1946 until January 1947. The hospital no longer exists: it was closed a year or two ago.
The Billy Berg engagement was the last Parker and Gillespie would play together for some time. For all he admired Parker, Dizzy could not tolerate his personal and professional instability. Alyn Shipton notes: "The year 1946 was to be one in which Gillespie again pushed forward the development of the new music unaided by Parker."
On returning to New York, Dizzy went to work with his sextet, including Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Stan Levey, and Al Haig, at Clarke Monroe's Spotlite. Monroe promised that if he did well, he would help him launch a new big band. Again Gil Fuller was to be the arranger Dizzy recruited Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Clarke and, in due course, Thelonious Monk. Monk's own unpredictability disturbed Dizzy as much as Bird's, and when, after a month, Kenny Clarke introduced him to John Lewis, whom Clarke had known in the Army, Dizzy inducted him into the band. Along with playing piano in it, Lewis wrote for it.
These associations led to the formation of one of the most successful of all small jazz groups. Because the Gil Fuller charts were hard to play, particularly for the brass section, Dizzy suggested that the rhythm section and Jackson play as a quartet for fifteen-minute periods, to give the band a rest. And they did: Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, John Lewis, and Kenny Clarke. These interludes became integral to the performances, and eventually the four musicians stepped out to play other gigs, first as The Atomics of Modern Music, a tacky nom de guerre that gave way to the Milt Jackson Quartet. They kept the initials but changed the name to the Modern Jazz Quartet, with John Lewis as its musical director. Brown and Clarke left, to be replaced by Percy Heath and Connie Kay, and this quartet lasted longer without a personnel change than any group in jazz history.
John Lewis wrote full charts, not sketches, for the band, augmenting the book being built by Gil Fuller with contributions by Tadd Dameron, Dizzy, and Ray Brown.
Probably from the beginning of the Big Band era, the audiences in ballrooms tended to divide into two parts: the dancers who went in for some (at times) astonishingly gymnastic dancing alternating with close and seductive movement during the ballads, and the conscientious listeners who crowded close to the bandstand to pay attention to the soloists, stars in their own right, and, probably to a lesser extent, to the writing. These dedicated listeners were, one sees in retrospect, the core of what would become a concert audience in the years after the war, when the dancers dropped away. The Gillespie group was essentially a concert band. Dizzy expressed puzzlement that audiences couldn't dance to this music. He said that he could; but then Dizzy was an exceptional dancer
Dizzy's interest in more complex rhythms than the straight four of jazz grew during that edition of his big bands. Had his big bands been called Herds, like those of Woody Herman, this would have been billed as the Second.
He had been using Latin rhythms for some time. He once told me that most of his own compositions used Latin rhythms — Con Alma, for example—and when I thought about it, I realized this was so. His friend Mario Bauza pulled his coat to the remarkable Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, whose full name was Luciano Pozo y Gonzales. He joined the band and inspired its off-the-wall chanting, seeming to evoke moods and images of Africa whatever the syllables meant (if anything). Chano Pozo collaborated with Dizzy on a piece titled Cubana Be—Cubana Bop, which George Russell arranged for the band.
Chano Pozzo enriched Dizzy's feeling for and knowledge of Latin polyrhythms (ultimately African rooted, even more purely so than jazz) and led to such pieces as Manteca, Guachi-Guaro, and many more in later times.
It was the beginning of Afro-Cuban jazz. It would be imitated by other bands, notably Stan Kenton's, but no one could equal the energy and passion it produced in the Gillespie band.
Meanwhile, Billy Shaw kept the focus of publicity on Dizzy's ostensible eccentricities. Time magazine ran photos of Dizzy and Benny Carter exchanging a "bebop greeting." If memory serves me it was a gesture with the fingers making what was supposed to be the sign of the flatted fifth.
Dizzy began to emerge as a public figure, but above all as that of a clown. It is difficult at this distance to know why he allowed this image of himself to be sent forth. But various factors suggest themselves.
Perhaps since so many persons were viewing bebop as a joke, Dizzy decided, consciously or otherwise, to give them what they expected. Much was made of his horn-rimmed glasses, beret, though neither was particularly unusual, let alone outrageous. The beret was always a practical item of headgeai; as witness all the world's military units that have worn it, not to mention the French, and more than a few trumpet players avoid shaving the lower lip.
In any case, Dizzy came out of show business, with all its attendant horseplay. One of the masters of onstage clowning and funny singing was Louis Jordan. Dizzy had known him since 1937, when Chick Webb would invite Dizzy to sit in with his band at the Savoy Ballroom. Alto saxophonist Jordan was in the band, and he was being featured as a vocalist. Ultimately, with his Tympani Five, he would have a series of hit records, all of them comic and using an infectious basic beat. The group is often cited as a precursor of rock-and-roll.
Later, in the Cab Calloway band, Dizzy observed night after night the way a flamboyant showman controlled an audience.
A significant issue arises here. Most of the early trumpet players, including Louis Armstrong and Henry Red Allen, and even later ones, such as Clark Terry, Jack Sheldon, and Conte Candoli, did a certain amount of comic singing. There is a reason for it. (Excepting Chet Baker, they largely eschewed ballads.)
A symphony trumpeter plays a comparatively few measures of music in the course of an evening, none of it in the altissimo register common among jazz trumpeters. And the jazz trumpeter played hard music all evening long. One of the ways you get high notes on a trumpet is to jam the mouthpiece into your lip, which in many cases cuts it up badly, leaving white scars on the mouth. Dizzy, curiously, didn't have them.
(Once, when the three of us were doing guest appearances on the Steve Allen TV show, I shared a dressing room with Dizzy and Doc Severinsen. I anticipated some interesting conversation. Mostly they talked about lip unguents.)
I asked Clark Terry two or three years ago if the reason so many earlier trumpeters sang was that doing so gave the mouth a rest. "Absolutely," Clark said, and related that Louis Armstrong always urged him and Dizzy to sing more. "It lets you get some blood back into your chops," Clark said.
And so Dizzy, singing Swing Low Sweet Cadillac, School Days, and The Umbrella Man, was resting his chops while amusing the audience and making it more open to his music.
In any case, Dizzy had a natural proclivity for clowning. It was just born in him, and it continued through the spitball days with Cab Calloway. He would have been spared the opprobrium had he become a professional comedian, at which he would have been superbly skilled, for he had Jack Benny's kind of slow timing and powerful presence, the ability to make people laugh while doing hardly anything. Dizzy loved to laugh, and to make others laugh. But jazz was in the phase of being discovered as a Serious Art Form, and the antics of Dizzy didn't seem to be helping the cause. Bird, dark, doomed, and remote, made a better icon for idolaters. This too, without question, contributed to the diminished perception of Gillespie's importance.
Dizzy once told me, "If by making people laugh, I can make them more receptive to my music, I'm going to do it." And, he said, he didn't give a damn what the critics said.
As for his seriousness about his music, let there be no doubt. When Grover Sales did a retrospective on Dizzy's career at San Francisco State University, with Dizzy in the audience, a student asked a question about jazz and "serious" music.
Dizzy called him on it. He said, "Men have died for this music. You can't get no more serious than that."
But the press concentrated on his shenanigans, and a famous and very funny photo from the period shows him in a long-lapelled chalk-striped gray-flannel suit, standing with his trumpet crooked in his arms and his knees crossed at the ankles, staring into the camera with a demure schoolgirl smile. That and other photos of him set off fads among his fans. It seemed that every young man who dug Dizzy had a pair of those horn-rimmed glasses, whether he needed them or not, and a beret.
By this time, the quail were rising from the tall grasses. The attacks on bop, Bird, and Dizzy were shrill and even vicious.
The supposedly perspicacious John Hammond, self-advertised always as the great discoverer and perpetrator of jazz, said, "Bop is a series of nauseating cliches, repeated ad infinitum."
Critic George Frazier wrote, "Bop is incredible stuff for a grown man to be playing." In 1947, Ralph Toledano, a man of the political right, wrote, "Bebop music is usually based on a repeated phrase or series of phrases with 'modernist' pretensions. To watch earnest collegians discussing 'bebop' with the seriousness which Stiedry brings to a Bach fugue is a gruesome experience."
(I smile, reading that, remembering that my late friend Glenn Gould, who knew a
lot more about Bach than Toledano could ever dream, had a taste for modern jazz.)
But the most abysmal writings about bebop came, not surprisingly, from an Englishman, the late Philip Larkin, England's poet laureate, who wrote articles on jazz for the Daily Telegraph in London. Larkin actually admits, in a book unimaginatively titled All What Jazz, on which the American publisher Farrar Strauss Giroux wasted 361 pages of perfectly good paper, that he began reviewing just to get free records, a motive not unknown among his counterparts in America. The only thing that kept me from flinging this book across the room is that I like to keep handy sterling examples of human stupidity against those rare moments when I am tempted to optimism about our species. Philip Larkin is useful because he can express his bigotry, being a classic example of that most dangerous of creatures, the articulate idiot. And he managed to squeeze into a few paragraphs all the animosity that greeted bebop.
"It wasn't," he wrote, "like listening to a kind of jazz I didn't care for — Art Tatum, shall I say, or Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. It wasn't like listening to jazz at all. Nearly every characteristic of the music had been neatly inverted: for instance, the jazz tone, distinguished from 'straight' practice by an almost-human vibrato, had entirely given way to utter flacidity."
Dizzy's tone? Flaccid? Parker's?
"Had the most original feature of jazz been its use of collective improvisation? Banish it: let the first and last choruses be identical exercises in low-temperature unison. Was jazz instrumentation based on hock-shop trumpets, trombones and clarinets of the returned Civil War regiments? Brace yourself for flutes, harpsichords, electronically-amplified bassoons."
Harpsichord has almost never been used in jazz. Has anyone ever encountered an electronically-amplified bassoon?
"Had jazz been essentially a popular art, full of tunes you could whistle? Something fundamentally awful had taken place to ensure that there should be no more tunes."
One wonders if Mr. Larkin ever heard such gorgeous Gillespie tunes as Lorraine and Con Alma, Tadd Dameron's ballad If You Could See Me Now, and the Gil Fuller-Chano Pozo Tin Tin Deo. Larkin sounds, in fact, a lot like Oscar Commetant, writing of Bizet on May 27, 1872, in Le Siecle in Paris:
"To the listener of sound mind and ear, these chromatic meows of an amorous or frightened cat — heard over a chord with a double pedal, or accompanied by as many diminished-seventh chords as there are notes in those meows — will never replace an expressive tonal melody, well pondered, of original turn, distinguished and yet natural and accompanied by chords that are correct."
Mr. Larkin continues: "Had the wonderful thing about (jazz) been its happy, cake-walky syncopation that set feet tapping and shoulders jerking? Any such feelings were now regularly dispelled by random explosions ('dropping bombs'), and the use of non-jazz tempos, 3/4, 5/8, 11/4."
Mr. Larkin apparently did not know the difference between a tempo and a time signature. And of course in his book of rules, only a simple 4/4 rhythm was comprehensible. In other cultures, such as the Greek and Armenian, complex time figures are common in popular music.
"Above all," Mr. Larkin fumes, "was jazz the music of the American Negro? Then fill it full of conga drums and sambas and all the tawdry trappings of South America, the racket of Middle East bazaars, the cobra-coaxing cacophonies of Calcutta."
Away with you, Jobim, Gilberto, Ary Barossa, and the rest, and take your tawdry Latin trappings with you.
What Mr. Larkin finally reveals to us is an authentic British neo-imperialist, a racist condescending to all cultures, and an admirer of jazz so long as its happy singing' and dancin' darkies keep it simple so he can tap his feet and shake his shoulders.
Larkin may have been preposterous, but he expressed the prejudices of those who so ardently attacked Parker and Gillespie and Monk and Clarke and their brilliant advances in the music. Charlie Parker, asked what it was he and his colleagues were rebelling against, denied that they were rebelling against anything. He said they merely thought it was the way the music ought to go. And surely it was time for it to advance as far as, say, the harmonic practices already in place in the popular music of, among others, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter.
Critics were not alone out there on that limb. Some musicians, as the French say, put their foot in the plate. During a Leonard Feather Blindfold Test, Sy Oliver said of something by Dizzy and Monk, "It's one of those bop records in the sense that I detest it. No stars."
As late as 1953, Buck Clayton said, "Bebop is not, never was, and never will be true jazz if it has a beat or not."
Tommy Dorsey said, "Bebop has set jazz back twenty years." Back to what? The harmonic practices of the mid-1920s? To the sixth chords of Fletcher Henderson? He did not foresee that those bands and small groups that embraced or at least tolerated bebop, such as Herman and Basie, were the ones that survived; those that didn't were the ones that died, Dorsey's among them.
Even Charlie Barnet fired a broadside at bebop, though he liked it, saying, "Outside of the top exponents of the music like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and a few others, the hoppers were a bunch of fumblers who were obviously incapable of handling the new idiom . . . This effectively delivered the death blow to the big bands as we had known them."
But not all the bands embraced the new idiom. And the public had the right to ignore the bands that incorporated it and patronize those that did not. This is not what happened. But that mindlessly-reiterated argument that "bebop killed the big bands" is an echo of the schism that was opened up by journalists such as Barry Ulanov. The causes of the death of the era were social and economic.
The jazz press wallowed in all this. Ulanov produced two battles-of-the-band on radio, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy in combat with a traditionalist band put together by Rudi Blesh, and these polarized positions were described in a piece in the November 1947 Metronome by Ulanov, a critic with an imperious confidence in his own proclamations. This was the fomented hostility between the Moderns and the Moldy Figs, as the lovers of older jazz were termed. Shipton rightly observes that Ulanov's articles and "similar pieces from Blesh's side of the critical divide contributed to a schism in public taste and critical opinion from which jazz has never fully recovered."
There is no question that Dizzy's onstage antics did him harm, and contributed to the elevation of Charlie Parker to the role of bebop's almost sole creator Parker's hagiographer Ross Russell, in a book titled Bird Lives: The Life and Hard Times of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, abetted the idea that Parker was the force in bebop, Gillespie the disciple. The very title of the book suggests that it was Parker's private problems that enraptured Russell. For all his brilliance, Bird should never have been placed in jazz history in a sharp and solitary foreground with Gillespie a small figure back in a misted aerial perspective.
It is in its contribution to a more balanced evaluation that Alyn Shipton's book is most valuable.”
(To be continued) ….
The significance of Dizzy Gillespie to Jazz is best summed up in the following excerpt from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“The guiding theoretician behind bop, the supreme virtuoso of jazz trumpet in the '40$ and '505, a profound teacher, a visionary with regard to jazz and its capacity to fraternize with other musics, and the great entertainer of his era, which lasted 50 years.”
The Immortal Joker
The Jazzletter, April, 1999
“It is impossible in our time to perceive how Beethoven's music was perceived in his. This is true of artists generally. We can deduce it from the outrage visited on them by critics — Nicolas Slonimsky 's Lexicon of Musical Invective is a fascinating compendium of such writings — but we can never actually feel the original impact.
Even knowing how original Louis Armstrong was, we can never perceive him the way the thunderstruck young musicians of his early days did. By the time many of us became aware of him, Joe Glaser, his manager, had manipulated him into position as an international star, grinning and mugging in movies and singing second-rate songs. It was easy to see him as a clown, not too distant from Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. Further, by the time a new generation of jazz fans heard him, they had already been steeped in the work of those he had inspired, such as Roy Eldridge, which further veiled the fact of his originality.
Less than a generation later, a problem of humor beset Dizzy Gillespie, although there was a sardonic edge to Gillespie's antics that set him apart from Armstrong. One always had a sense that Dizzy was toying with the audience as much as he was catering to it. A wry amusement infused what he did.
The jazz press made much of a schism between bebop and earlier jazz, attributing to Armstrong contemptuous evaluations of the new music and to Dizzy some rejoinders which, when I came to know him, seemed out of character. The gentleness that was in him, whatever the managed angers, was at odds with such remarks.
When I was studying piano and harmony with Tony Aless who, with Sanford Gold, ran a two-man school in New York, Bill Evans got interested in the materials they had assembled, including voicing exercises and chord substitutions. "This is interesting," he said. "We had to work all this out for ourselves."
Bill put a high value on personal discovery, as opposed to imposed methodology. What you learn for yourself is idiosyncratically yours, and since there were no schools of jazz in its first decades, musicians had to find their own approaches to their instruments and the music itself, leading to the "wrong" fingering of Bix Beiderbecke and the "wrong" embouchure and special fingerings of John Birks Gillespie. All this private exploration led to the personal and identifiable sounds and styles of earlier jazz musicians. The teaching methods of the jazz education movement have led to codified procedures and because of them a levelling.
There is a widespread competence in young players, but they are often as interchangeable as the parts on a GM pickup. They may be accomplished at the technical level, but too many are no more individual than Rich Little doing impressions.
The flatted fifth chord and the minor-seventh-flat-five chord were not new in western music, but as composer Hale Smith points out, they were probably, for Monk and other jazz musicians, discoveries, and thus became personal vocabulary.
As composers explored what we call western music over these last centuries, they expanded the vocabulary but they did not invent, or re-invent it. However, this expansion, particularly in the Romantic music of the nineteenth century, appeared to be invention. Thus too with jazz, when Parker and Gillespie entered with such eclat on the scene. The nineteenth century led to the illusion that to be original, one must invent a new language rather than use the existing lexicon with personal powers of invention. It can be argued that those who use known vocabulary to say new things are more creative than those who affect the invention of a language. For the personal use of existing materials, we need look only to Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, John Guarnieri, Dave Brubeck, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Bud Powell, Fats Waller, Phineas Newborn, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, John Lewis, Roger Kellaway, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Rowles, Milt Buckner, Nat Cole, Bill Evans, and many others, all of them inventing within the same broad vocabulary of Western music, all of them strongly personal, even instantly recognizable, and all of them producing their own tone qualities on an instrument on which, it has been argued from a scientific standpoint, individual tone is not even possible. That is originality.
There is nothing original in jazz as such. Improvisation is not original; it has been with us for millennia. Collective improvisation is not original: it is found in flamenco, mariachi, Irish instrumental folk tradition, and other musics, including even the simple but stirring music of Paraguayan harp bands whose players have minimal conscious knowledge of what they're doing. Specific "swinging" rhythm is not original; again, we can look to flamenco, and all the regional musical styles of Brazil and Cuba. This is why a universally acceptable definition of jazz has never been elucidated. Jazz is a combination of many things used in a fresh way, and something may be jazz (such as some of the fixed solos of Armstrong and Tatum) even when it is not improvised.
The theme-and-variations form is old and elemental. But it .makes possible most of what we call jazz, for there is no other way to set up a comprehensible framework within which the musician can make his statement. It is, however, the implicit limitation of jazz, and many a musician has writhed in its confines. Yet throw it out, embrace "free jazz", and you abandon the lingua franca audiences can comprehend and thus lose financial support the artist must have to continue developing. Abandon that and get in line for the doles of fellowships and grants and other supports for hot-house art unable to withstand the touch of even the most benign natural breeze. Art that does not communicate isn't art at all, for the act is completed only in the reception and response of an "audience". All else is mirror-gazing.
It is rational to say, as Phil Woods and George Russell effectually do, that this is what I do and I hope enough people like it to permit me to live from it. But it is what I do. It is another matter to say, "Society owes me and must give me grants to permit my endless explorations." This has led to a proliferation of the indecipherable on the "artistic" end of the spectrum in a pathological symbiosis with the explosion of meretricious trash at the commercial end of it.
However, fresh art, truly fresh art, is always startling, even when expressed with conventional materials, and Parker and Gillespie were nothing if not surprising.
Dizzy Gillespie did not come out of a tradition of art; he grew up in the world of entertainment. All high art is ultimately rooted in folklore, but Dizzy was never far from it. His was the tradition of Armstrong and Eldridge and Ray Nance and Woody Herman, with roots in or recent descent from vaudeville and minstrelsy; it was the critics, partly in celebration of their own perceptions, who saw it (rightly so, to be sure) as art. I suspect that Dizzy loved the attention, the giddy journalism, that attended bebop. He startled me, as young and susceptible to the new as I was, and I cannot, like so many others, say, "I dug Bird the first time I heard him." Salt Peanuts took me a while. I had to get used to the sudden starts and stops, the rhythmic eccentricity (in the true as well as figurative sense) and flung-out phrases. Once I did, Dizzy had few more ardent admirers.
In August and December 1947, Dizzy and a big band recorded a group of "sides" for RCA, rushing to get them done before the onset in January of the second AFM recording ban. (Results of these sessions are to be found in The Bebop Revolution, Bluebird CD 2177-2-RB.) Then Dizzy took the band to Europe on a tour that was a commercial fiasco due to mismanagement, not to mention theft, by some of the business people involved, but a public, critical, and aesthetic triumph. Once, in Paris, the audience was so stunned by the music that at the end of the first number, it forgot to applaud. That tour affected jazz in Europe ever afterwards, and Kenny Clarke remained behind in Paris when the band went home, to become a fixture of the European musical world, and eventually co-leader with Francy Boland of the Clarke-Boland Big Band, one of the best big bands in the history of the music. Dizzy broke up his band on returning to New York, then reorganized it and kept it together through 1948 and '49. That band is heard to advantage in a Crescendo CD GNPD 23 recorded by broadcaster and impresario Gene Norman when he presented it in concert on July 19, 1948. at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California. The band's goofy, almost dada-esque, high spirits are evident throughout. Chano Pozo was with the band at that time.
But the big-band era was over, and it was impossible to maintain a touring band of such size. In early 1950, Dizzy surrendered to the ultimatum of his wife and broke it up. He went back to a small group and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
"The period 1950 until 1953 was to be an artistic low point in Dizzy's career," Alyn Shipton writes, "redeemed by a few examples of his technically brilliant playing on record or in concert and with a few glimpses of the future direction he was to take."
By then Miles Davis had made the nonet recordings with Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, John Lewis, et al, the so-called Birth of the Cool recordings. The relationship between Miles and Dizzy, Shipton says, "has always been hard to pin down." He writes that a master-and-pupil relationship, begun in the Eckstine band, continued into the 1950s. But Miles was critical of Dizzy's behavior before an audience, saying, "As much as I love Dizzy and loved Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, I always hated the way they used to laugh and grin for the audiences. I knew why they did it — to make money and because they were entertainers as well as trumpet players."
That Miles' seeming sullen stance was fully as theatrical as Dizzy's clowning, and just as effective in commanding an audience, should be obvious. But I must admit that a slight uneasiness over Dizzy's antics for a long time precluded my own perception of his art. I came to understand his use of so-called "showmanship" and eventually to know just how purposive his clowning could be.
On May 15, 1953, Dizzy took part in a performance at Toronto's Massey Hall with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. That program is available on Debut, originally Mingus's own company and now one of the Fantasy group of labels, under the title The Quintet (OJC-044). Among that concert's other virtues, Parker plays superbly, and Bud Powell, whose unstable mental condition had vitiated many of his performances, was brilliant. When he was off his game, his time could be flakey. It isn't here. And I don't know how anybody could listen to this recording and call Dizzy's tone "thin". Shipton writes: ""No better example survives of the intrinsic difference between Bird's spontaneous ability to conjure endless variations in a jam-session environment and Dizzy's to construct architecturally thought-through choruses in which his stock phrases are carefully integrated."
He concludes: "The Massey Hall concert has become one of the most celebrated events in jazz history and is especially valuable because of the relative scarcity of collaborations between Dizzy and Bird after 1946."
The middle 1950s saw Dizzy traveling with the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic package, and recording such albums with small group as Have Trumpet, Will Excite and The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie for Granz's Verve label. But Dizzy, like others who had grown up on and through the big bands (Gerry Mulligan among them) retained the yearning to have one, and he was at it again whenever he could keep one floating.
The opportunity came when he was asked to go on one of the State Department's cultural exchange tours of the middle east. The tour took place in early 1956, with Dizzy fronting the first big band he'd had since 1950. It was such a success that the State Department asked him to tour South America. Dizzy asked his friend Dave Usher from Detroit (who had run Dizzy's short-lived Dee Gee record label) to come along. Dizzy had purchased an Ampex 600 tape recorder, and Usher recorded the band. Dizzy in South America, Volume One is available on CD by mail-order from CAP, the co-operative organized by Mike Longo, one of Dizzy's favorite pianists.
Usher told Ira Gitler, who quotes him in the album's liner notes, "In every hotel, people were always waiting in the lobby, day and night, to meet Dizzy, or even just get a glimpse of him. Somehow a few of them would always get upstairs. They would be waiting in the hall outside Dizzy's room."
Dizzy's comedic sense served him well. His peculiar ability simply to stand there, and, like Jack Benny, inspire a smile or laughter, his little dance steps, his uncanny capacity to communicate, sailed through whatever barriers of language there might be.
Usher recalls an incident that is revealing of Dizzy's character In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Dizzy and Usher went to a school, Casa Roosevelt, sponsored by the U.S. to teach English. Usher said:
"It was an open-air, backyard kind of thing. There were a great many kids, junior high and high school students, who were asking Dizzy questions. They wanted to come to the evening performance, but they didn't have the money. We found out that our secondary sponsor, the American National Theater Academy, was charging admission. We told the kids to present their IDs and they'd get in. Dizzy refused to play until the kids were allowed in. He said, 'We're doing this for the people.'"
… Despite some shortcomings in sound [Dizzy in South America, Volume One ], it is fantastic. If ever anyone should ask what jazz is all about, you could play the Cool Breeze track. Dizzy plays an extended ballistic solo that is truly awesome. One of the great solos in jazz history.
Trombonist Al Grey, who played in the bands of Benny Carter, Lucky Millinder, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basic, and Lionel Hampton, remembers that period with Gillespie as a pinnacle of his life. "What a band!" Al said several years ago. "Come on! We'd come to work twenty minutes before time, warming up getting ready to hit.The trumpet section had Lee Morgan, Bama Warwick, Lamar Wright. The trombone section was Melba Liston, Chuck Connors, Rod Levitt, and me. The rhythm section was Wynton Kelly, Paul Wess, and Charlie Persip. The reed section was Benny Golson, Billy Mitchell, Ernie Henry, Rudy Powell, and Billy Root on baritone, who came from Stan Kenton's band. For a while we had Phil Woods. This is what I admired about Diz. And Lucky Millinder. They didn't care what color anybody was.
"But Dizzy was losing so much money. To play in that band we all had to take a drop in fees. We all got $135 a week, and you had to pay your hotel and all your expenses out of that."
Norman Granz recorded Dizzy with the big band (there had been personnel changes after South America) on July 6, 1957, Dizzy Gillespie at Newport, Verve CD 314 513 754-2. Thus Dizzy's big-band work in the mid-1950s is well-documented on recordings.
A good three-CD package called Dizzy's Diamonds (Verve 314 513 875-2) documents Gillespie's work with Granz. The material was selected and sequenced by Kenny Washington. Now forty-one, Kenny is not only a great drummer; he has emerged as one of the most conscientious and informed scholars of jazz, and for liner notes he interviewed Jon Faddis, whose work on trumpet probably comes closer to Dizzy's than anyone's. Faddis told Washington:
"When he has a big band behind him, it pushes him in different directions and that's when I think Dizzy is actually at his best."
Writing biography is a more complex task than the mere recording of information. If five persons witness a given event, you will get five different views of it, filtered through the commentator's self-interests, rationalizations, and solipsism.
When the subject of the biography is recently dead, the survivors cannot sue for libel even if they are hurt by its disclosures. Do the revelations justify the pain they may cause? Future writers may need information you might wish to pass over in consideration for the feelings of others, or for that matter your own discomfiture. It's a delicate dilemma.
And how do you strike a balance between what the press knew of John F. Kennedy's peccadilloes and kept still about and the maniacal pursuits of Kenneth Starr? Did Starr, fully as much as a distracted Bill Clinton, contribute to the horrors of Kosovo? Has Monica Lewinsky considered the deaths she may have caused in collecting her groupie's trophy?
In books about the long gone, the problem doesn't arise; you can't hurt Salieri's feelings if you say he was jealous of Mozart. On the other hand, the best witnesses to that age are also gone.
As for anyone who holds that the artist's private life has nothing to do with his art, consider Wagner's dreadful character and virulent anti-Semitism. It infects his music, in his myth of the glorious Aryan, and it affected the growth of anti-Semitism in Germany, to a price we have all paid one way or the other. Toscanini's prejudices and background bear on his work. As a less-than-enthralled Robert Shaw, who prepared the chorus for the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, told me once: "He makes Beethoven sound like Verdi." Even when the work seems at variance with the character of the artist, as (spectacularly) in the case of Stan Getz, the discrepancy is a legitimate subject for examination.
Alyn Shipton, in Groovin' High, faced a decision: To discuss or not to discuss Jeanie Bryson. To do so could only hurt Lorraine, Dizzy's wife. I would not have found the decision an easy one. Though I don't know her well, I like Lorraine a lot. On balance, I think Shipton had no choice. The information was out, Lorraine had undoubtedly heard about it, and perhaps she knew what his friends knew, that away from home Dizzy had a taste for the ladies. This, of course, hardly made him a novelty among men.
Shipton, further, enters into the subject of Dizzy's taste for, even fascination with, white women.
I once discussed this with an especially dear friend of mine, a trumpet player at the highest level of jazz. I asked him if there was any particular attraction for him in white women. They weren't any better at "it" than black women. He agreed. Then what did they have to offer?
He said, and this is verbatim, "I think of all the white men who'd like to whup my ass for it."
The forbidden has always been attractive, and adding risk to the act for some people enhances the thrill.
It is, of course, the ultimate social folly to think you can collide men and women of different races and at the same time suspend the workings of hormones. If man had not wanted "race mixing" he should never have mastered sea travel, and certainly should not have invented the airplane. I am always troubled by scenes in movies and television in which couples are paired off by race, the white man with the white wife, the black man with the black wife, all of this implying segregation. I argued as far back as the 1960s (with Lenny Bruce, among others) that the real issue was not desegregation of the school-room but of the bedroom, and indeed of the entire social fabric. The movies have always perpetuated segregation. According to Hollywood, cowboys and trappers and miners never married Indians. How is it then that there are countless "whites" in the American west with Cherokee or Apache or Comanche or Chumash or some other native ancestry? The number of "blacks" with Indian ancestry is, proportionately, as high or higher: John Lewis, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Ed Thigpen, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Doc Cheatham, Oscar Pettiford, keep going.
In the broader picture, the fact that Dizzy's long and hidden relationship was with a white woman is irrelevant; it was not, irrelevant, however, to the persons involved, entailing pain the blame for which goes less to them than to the society as a whole.
Connie Bryson was a high-school sophomore, the daughter of a microbiologist at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, when she met Dizzy at Birdland in 1953. She found him, not surprisingly, charming, funny, and kind, and, as she said, "in a lot of ways a real contrast to his canned humor on stage, because that wasn't nearly as vital and spontaneous as he was in the flesh." She said he "didn't lay a finger on me until I was over eighteen . . . . " She was, she said, insanely in love with him.
She believed he was incapable of fathering a child, and was shocked to learn she was pregnant. Her daughter, Jeanie Bryson, was born on March 10, 1958, and thus, as you can figure out quickly, is now forty-one years old.
Connie Bryson apparently asked nothing of Dizzy, attempting to raise the child on her own, but at last moving in with her parents. Her father was by now with the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. His granddaughter presented problems, and his job was threatened. He told the powers-that-be what they could do with the job, and the problem dissipated.
There was apparently never much question of the paternity, though a blood test was taken. Dizzy had a check sent each month by his booking agency — Associated Booking, the late Joe Glaser's company — in support of the little girl. Jeanie Bryson saw a lot of her father in childhood and again when she was in her late teens, when she met many of his friends, including Mickey Roker and Jon Faddis.
It was not known publicly until 1990 that Jeanie Bryson was Dizzy's daughter, and this when she began to emerge as a singer. Immediately some of his partisans attacked her, saying she was using his name only for publicity, but Telarc records, her label, said they had signed her on her merits without consideration of her paternity. Al Fraser, co-writer with Dizzy of the autobiography To Be or Not to Bop, told Dizzy that if he wanted to deny her, he would have to get a nose job. Alyn Shipton notes the similarity of her movements, a phenomenon one often encounters in family relationships. It is interesting, in those old films that featured the Glenn Miller band, to study the face of singer Marion Hutton. The crinkle around her eyes when she laughs, the very mobility of the face, an exuberance masking a terrible sadness, are exactly, but exactly, like those of her sister, Betty Hutton. It isn't a matter of imitation but of facial structure. I have seen Jeanie Bryson — a very good singer — only once, in a 1997 television interview, but it was enough to establish the paternity. The facial structure, the movements of the head, and other details or so like Dizzy's.
In any event, Dizzy signed a court agreement on May 26, 1965, acknowledging "paternity of the said child and his legal liability for the support thereof." When she reached eighteen, Dizzy extended his support agreement till she was twenty-one. She was graduated in anthropology and enthnomusicology from Rutgers. Pianist Kenny Barron, her tutor there, said, "I met her when she was four. I was working with Dizzy when her mother brought her by. He didn't really talk about her publicly, but I'm sure he was proud."
Dizzy was known for the casual way he would hire sidemen, such as Ray Brown, simply on someone's recommendation. Composer Hale Smith got a call when he was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The voice on the phone said, "This is Dizzy Gillespie." Hale thought, Oh yeah, sure it is. But in a moment he realized it was indeed Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy had heard from Sahib Shihab, who was playing saxophone in his group, that Hale was a pretty good pianist. He said, "Do you want a gig?" So Hale went to a job that night. He asked for the charts. There weren't any.
"Fortunately, I knew most of the tunes from the records," Hale said. And he eared his way through the rest. At the end of the night, Dizzy asked if he wanted to work with him another night. And then for a time he became Dizzy's pianist, when he could get away from his studies. They remained lifelong friends. Years later, Dizzy told him the directors of the Hartford Symphony had asked him to perform the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Dizzy asked Hale if he would run through the piece with him. Hale played it from a piano reduction score; Dizzy sight-read it flawlessly, and then said at the end of it that he thought he wouldn't play it. He said it wasn't really his cup of tea.
Dizzy met Lalo Schifrin in Buenos Aires during the South American tour. Dizzy played with him briefly and urged him to come to New York. Lalo detoured through the Paris Conservatory and composition studies with, among other teachers, Olivier Messaien. When at last he came to New York, playing with Latin bands to eke out a living, he finally, hesitantly, called Dizzy. Dizzy told him to write something for him. Lalo sketched the Gillespiana Suite. He showed it to Dizzy, who said he would perform it. At the moment, he had no pianist for his small group. Who was he planning to get? "I sort of had you in mind," Dizzy said. And so Lalo joined him on piano and as resident composer. It changed the course of his life.
Lalo told me many stories of Dizzy from that period, some of which I have recounted elsewhere. But they are pertinent now. Once he and Dizzy were in a hotel room with a friend who was putting golf balls into a glass. Dizzy asked if he could try it. And, repeatedly, he put the ball into the glass. The man asked if he had played a lot of golf. He'd never touched a golf club before. Then how was he doing this?
"I just think I'm the ball and I want to be in the cup," Dizzy said. That is a form of zen, and I think Dizzy approached playing the horn in the same way. How else account for the liquid direct contact with the instrument and the music it was emitting?
Lalo told me funny stories, too, stories of Dizzy's humor. In Scotland, Dizzy would approach someone on the street and say, in his most formal enunciation, "Pardon me, my name is Gillespie, and I'm looking for my relatives." He did of course have white relatives, and in his later years, he told me, when he went home to Cheraw, some of them recognized and welcomed him.
Lalo also played Berlin with him. When the bellboy showed them to their rooms, Dizzy said to him, "Would you mind trying out the shower?"
"Wassl" the man said.
"You Germans have some funny ideas about showers," Dizzy said.
That was about as close to malicious as I think he could get, though he did carry that knife. But even that could be a tool of humor. Mike Longo recalled an occasion when he and Dizzy and other members of the group were playing cards backstage. Dizzy pulled out his blade and with a grand gesture and ominous glower stabbed it into the table top. "What's that for?" Mike said.
"That's in case any of you motherfuckers mess with me."
Mike took out a dime and dropped it on the table. "What's that?" Dizzy said.
Mike said, "That's a dime to call the Mafia in case any of you motherfuckers mess with me."
Dizzy hired Junior Mance as casually as he had these others. Junior had been working with Cannonball Adderley. But the group broke up. Dizzy encountered him on the street in New York and asked what he was doing. "Nothing," Junior said.
Dizzy said, "The rehearsal is at my house," and handed him a card bearing the address.
"That's how it started," Junior said. (Jazzletter, March 1997.) "In the three years I played with Dizzy, I think I learned more musically than in all the years I studied with teachers and in music schools. Besides his being a hell of a nice guy.
"We lived near each other in Long Island. He lived in Corona and I lived in East Elmhurst. Two villages, you might say, right next to each other. I was, like, a five-minute walk away from his house.
"You never knew what he was going to do. I used to try to play at tennis. And so did he. He'd say, 'Let's go play tennis.' I figured we're going to a court or something. We'd go out and find an open field in Queens and just hit the ball back and forth.
"It was always exciting. I remember when the band was in Pittsburgh once. One day he took a walk. He saw a firehouse. Some of the firemen were playing chess. He sat down and wiped them all out. They told him to come back the next day. And he did. He was always relaxed and nonchalant about everything. He was a man who could converse with anybody on any subject. It really amazed me. He could meet people in other walks of life, far removed from music, and hold the most brilliant conversation. He had a picture in his house of him and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, playing chess on a plane. They had the board on a support between the seats.
"I used to spend time with him in his basement, where he had his own private little studio. He would show me things on the piano. But he never forced you to play any way you weren't comfortable. I got the impression that he knew how you played before he hired you. And by listening to him, I would think you would have to get better. It's like Miles Davis said, any trumpet player who played in Dizzy's big band and didn't improve didn't have it to begin with.
"Everybody who played with him improved. Especially drummers. He made so many guys who were just average drummers into fantastic drummers. I didn't hear Charlie Persip before he played with Dizzy, but somebody told me he was just another drummer. After a while with Dizzy's big band, he was one of the most fantastic big-band drummers, and small-group drummers, around.
"Dizzy had such a great sense of rhythm. He could teach you any kind of rhythm. It was almost as though he'd invented the rhythms. Rhythms you might think you'd been playing right for years, and one little thing he injected would change the whole thing."
About Dizzy's onstage clowning, Junior said, "You see, Dizzy was a master of programming. He'd fit the situation, it was like tailor made for each room. He'd use the same tunes, but maybe in a different way each time. That's one of the things I learned from him, how to program things. So many of the young cats now, they'll get up there, they'll play one tune after another the same tempo, they'll play all they know each tune. They're good musicians, but you can't get an audience that way. Dizzy would mix it up, he knew how to do it. I do it myself. I'll do it in a different way. I'll start with one rhythm or one tempo, and a ballad, then maybe throw a blues in there. But it's all stuff that I like. And this is what I noticed about Dizzy. He wasn't tomming, or bending over backwards to get anybody's attention — even when we played School Days. After a while, we began to like School Days, too, because that shuffle rhythm will get you every time. I like shuffle rhythm. And Dizzy, being Dizzy, when he put that horn up, it worked, and I said, 'Wow, yeah!’”
Junior left to form his own group with Dizzy's firm support and permanent friendship. Like Longo and others, Junior became part of Dizzy's reserve army of musicians who would go anywhere, do anything, for him. Junior played with him for a week at the Blue Note on the last gig of Dizzy's life.
Dizzy experimented with large-orchestra formats. He became deeply impressed by the orchestral writing of the young Clare Fischer, and commissioned him to write an album for him. They decided to do Ellington material. Shipton writes, "It is one of the least successful of Dizzy's big band ventures, lacking the authentic stamp of Ellington's own personality….”
I don't think it was meant to reflect Ellington as much as the broader instrumental palette that Gil Evans had explored. If, as Shipton suggests, Dizzy wanted a setting comparable to that Miles Davis had found with Gil Evans in Porgy and Bess and Miles Ahead, he had found the right arranger. I gather Shipton doesn't know why that album turned out poorly. Fischer arrived in New York from California, charts completed, to find that Dizzy, with the out-to-lunch carelessness of which he was capable, hadn't bothered to book an orchestra. Fischer had to do it at the last minute. Most of the best jazz players in New York were already engaged, and Fischer had to fill in the instrumentation with symphony players. They didn't grasp the idiom, and the album is stiff. In a word, it just doesn't swing. But the writing in that album is gorgeous; its failure is Dizzy's fault.
Lalo Schifrin presented Dizzy with the Gillespiana Suite, recorded in New York November 14 and 15, 1960. It is an interesting album. It uses French horns and tuba instead of a saxophone section. One of the things it has over the Clare Fischer album is a beautifully-booked band of some of the best players available in New York at that time, including John Frosk, Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, and Joe Wilder on trumpets, Urbie Green, Frank Rehak, Britt Woodman, and Paul Faulise on trombones.
An album in this genre that I like is Gil Fuller & The Monterey Jazz Orchestra, recorded in Los Angeles in 1967 after Dizzy's early-autumn appearance at Monterey and available on a Blue Note CD, alas now out of print. As in Gillespiana, four French horns are used, but no tuba, and there is a sax section. Fuller gets top billing, and his writing is delicious, both in his own compositions and arrangements of two of Dizzy's pieces, Groovin' High and Things Are Here.
Something had occurred at the Monterey Jazz Festival the year of its opening, indeed in the first moments of its existence, in 1958. No one wanted to "open", the protocol of show business holding that the opening is a demeaning slot. Grover Sales, who was the festival's publicist in its early years, witnessed the incident. Dizzy said, "Shoot, I'll open," went onstage and played The Star Spangled Banner. Then Louis Armstrong came onstage. Dizzy got down on one knee and kissed his hand. "A lot of people said Dizzy was clowning," Grover recalls. "He wasn't clowning. There is a photo of that. Louis looks pleased and surprised.
"Some time after that, I played an Armstrong record for Dizzy. He said, very quietly, 'Louis Armstrong was a miracle. Imagine anyone playing that in 1930.""
Whatever Armstrong had said about Dizzy in the press-fed fervor of bebop's early denunciation, Dizzy never carried a grudge. In the later years, when he and Clark Terry and Armstrong all lived in the same neighborhood in Corona, Long Island, Clark and Dizzy would go over to Armstrong's house, ring his bell, and be admitted. Louis would give them the benefit of his wisdom. "It made him feel good," Clark said.
Presumably Armstrong had grown comfortable with what once had seemed revolutionary. And Dizzy said of Armstrong, "No him, no me."
Alyn Shipton notes, and so did Dizzy's friends, that as the 1960s progressed, he moved deeper and deeper into an inner spiritualism, of which the incident of the golf balls is perhaps an expression. He embraced the B'hai faith. He never talked about it, he never proselytized, but it was there. Shipton quotes Nat Hentoff:
"I knew Dizzy for some forty years, and he did evolve into a spiritual person. That's a phrase I almost never use, because many of the people who call themselves spiritual would kill for their faith. But Dizzy reached an inner strength and discipline that total pacifists call 'soul force'. He always had a vivid presence. Like they used to say of Fats Waller, whenever Dizzy came into a room he filled it. He made people feel good, and he was the sound of surprise, even when his horn was in its case."
I had always found Dizzy an accessible man, and as the years went on, he became only more so, even as he withdrew into an inner peace. I suppose it was comforting to him to know that he was revered by musicians everywhere.
I remember going to hear him at a matinee in the Regal Theater in Chicago, taking my son, who was then probably three, with me. Backstage, Dizzy got down on his knees with him, put his trumpet mouthpiece to the tip of his nose, and buzzed his lips in a tune. My son giggled delightedly; how he got the joke, I don't know. But Dizzy could reach any audience, of any age and apparently any nationality, and those who derogated his showmanship just didn't get it. It was always at the service of his art.
I saw this one night in Ottawa, probably in 1969.
Peter Shaw, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio division, stationed in Ottawa, asked me to come up from New York and sing a group of my songs for broadcast. In those days the CBC still generated a lot of original music. He said I could use a fair-sized orchestra. When he asked who I wanted for an arranger, I said, "Chico O'Farrill." Chico was my friend, my neighbor, and Saturday-night drinking companion. We had met in Mexico City, when he was writing albums for, among others, Andy Russell, who by then was living there. When his American career faltered, Andy, who was Mexican by ancestry and spoke Spanish, simply moved to Mexico and became the biggest star in Spanish-language television. From those writings for Andy, I knew how well Chico wrote for singers. Not all "jazz" arrangers can do it. Chico and I went to Ottawa, and recorded that hour of radio.
Later, Peter asked us to come up again and do a concert at a place called Camp Fortune, an outdoor amphitheater across the Ottawa River in the beautiful Gatineau Hills of Quebec. We agreed, of course. Then Peter called and asked if Chico would consider performing the Aztec Suite, which he had composed for Art Farmer. They had recorded it in an album for United Artists.
Chico still had the music. After that we tried to reach Art. But he had moved to "Vienna, and was working mostly in Europe. Chico looked at me and said, "How about Dizzy?"
Why not? Chico called Dizzy, who said he'd love to do it.
Back to Ottawa Chico and I went. When the day of the first rehearsal arrived, no Dizzy. His flight had been grounded by extreme storms in the St. Louis area. Chico rehearsed the orchestra. Dizzy phoned to tell us the weather was clearing and he would be there next day for the dress rehearsal and the performance.
Living in Ottawa at that time was a fine saxophonist from Brooklyn named Russ Thomas. Russ had a Russian wife, an exceptional seamstress who had made him several dashikis, not in the exquisite cottons of Africa but in wool, suitable to the winter weather of Ottawa. (It is colder than Moscow, and the winter lasts longer.) I loved them on sight. Russ wore one to the dress rehearsal and brought another for me. They were in beige-and-dark earth tones. Russ and I were wearing them when Dizzy walked in, and all the musicians stood up in obeisance.
I said, "Now see here, Mr. Gillespie, I hope you realize you're now on our territory."
"Damnl" he said, ignoring this. "Where'dyou get that?"
I introduced him to Russ and told him Russ's wife had made it.
"I want to wear that in the concert!" Dizzy said.
I took it off and gave it to him.
Then he rehearsed, reading the Aztec Suite flawlessly at sight.
Even before the concert, on the phone from New York, I had told Peter Shaw that there was absolutely no way I was going to follow Dizzy Gillespie onto a stage, even if in theory this was "my" concert. I'm not crazy, I said.
But if I opened, it would create an imbalance. Chico and I came up with a solution. We would write a new piece which Dizzy, Chico, and I could do together to close the concert.
I did the first half of the concert. I said I was pleased to be able, for the first time, to do my songs in the country where I was born. I said, "And now, may I introduce my friend Mr. John Birks Gillespie."
Dizzy came onstage in that glorious dashiki, toting his tilted horn, took the mike in his hand as I walked off, and looked around (as was his wont) as if surprised to find there were people there. And there were indeed, perhaps 5,000 of them, spread up the grassy slope of a natural amphitheater He had them smiling before he uttered a word, and then, when he said, "Damn! I'm glad I'm a Canadian," they roared. He had them, without playing a note.
And oh did he play. Magnificently, soaringly When the suite came to its end, the audience stood, screaming. But we had prepared no more material. And at this point I was to walk out and do the song, a ballad, with him and Chico. My God! I could never walk out into that inferno of applause. That audience had forgotten I existed, and with good reason.
Dizzy, acting as if he weren't hearing them, got out the music for his part in the song we were to do. It was through-composed, and his music was in a long accordion-fold strip. Somewhat formally, still ignoring the applause, he pretended to put it on his music stand, but dropped it. It spilled on the stage. The audience laughed, and the applause died down a little.
He gathered it up, his horn under his arm, and then went through gestures of putting it back together, like a man who can't quite figure out how to refold a road map. At last he succeeded, and, with an air of ostentatious triumph, put the music up a second time. And it fell again.
This time he stood his horn on its bell, its body tilted at that odd forty-five degree angle. He got down on his knees, put the music together yet again, and had the audience helpless with laughter. He stood up, and put the music back. This time it stayed in place. He held up a hand for quiet, then said into the microphone, "Ladies and gentleman, Gene Lees."
And he and Chico and I did the song.
He had calculatedly broken the mood of his own success, changed the ambience entirely through laughter, and then handed me the audience as a gift. It was incredibly clever, not to say deeply generous, and ever afterwards I understood the meaning of the comedy in the midst of his great and serious art. Shakespeare knew how to use light moments to set up the serious material to follow. So did Sibelius. So did Stravinsky. Indeed, you cannot write tragedy without a sense of humor, for without it, everything is dirge and darkness and boredom. Whether Dizzy had ever given this a conscious thought, I shall never know; but he certainly understood the principle.
Afterwards there was a small party at Peter Shaw's home, the upper floor of a duplex. I remember Dizzy's graciousness to my mother and my sister. My mother knew nothing of jazz, and never understood my fascination, and my sister's, with it. But Dizzy held her enthralled.
For part of the evening, some of us, including Dizzy, were out on Peter's balcony, overlooking the leafy parkland along the Rideau Canal, the glow of streetlamps casting shadows through the trees. More and more, as the years had gone on, I'd found Dizzy's purported rejoinders to Armstrong at the time of bebop's burgeoning hard to credit. I asked him about this, out on that balcony. He said, in a voice as soft as the evening, "Oh no. I'd never say anything like that about Pops."
Dizzy's work in the later years is often seen as a turning away from the revolutionism (although he and Parker denied that it was a revolution) of bebop, a surrender to conservatism. I don't see it that way. I once asked him what he looked for in a tune.
He said, "Simple changes."Perceiving my surprise — he didn't miss much — he added, "If they're too complicated, it won't swing."
I don't think he became conservative. He abandoned the excesses of bebop. And, in the exuberance of youth, they were there. Some of the music of that time now seems cute and coy. Also, Dizzy embraced lyricism in later years, playing ballads with an ardor that isn't there in the early stuff. In any event, it is a pattern for great minds to define their innovations early — and great innovations always do come from the young, which is well-known in the sciences — and spend the later years exploring, refining, and teaching the revelations of the early years.
To expect Dizzy to continue revolutionism is unreasonable. And, melodically and harmonically, he and Bird and Bud Powell pushed jazz about as far as it could go without abandoning completely the vocabulary of western music. It seems that a lay audience, and one can hardly expect to survive on a professional audience, can follow art only so far into obscurity. Bill Evans and some others refined what Dizzy and his colleagues had achieved, adding a little more derived from European concert music, and it is questionable whether some of what Bill and others did should be called jazz at all. Brilliant, yes, marvelous and moving, but it escapes the bounds of jazz. Dizzy took jazz about as far as it could go. There is something else he achieved. Sonny Rollins, quoted in Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop, said it:
"Jazz has always been a music of integration. In other words, there were definitely lines where blacks would be and where whites would begin to mix a little. I mean, jazz was not just a music; it was a social force in this country, and it was talking about freedom and people enjoying things for what they are and not having to worry about whether they were supposed to be white, black, and all this stuff. Jazz has always been the music that had this kind of spirit. Now I believe for that reason, the people that could push jazz have not pushed jazz because that's what jazz means. A lot of times, jazz means no barriers. Long before sports broke down its racial walls, jazz was bringing people together on both sides of the bandstand. Fifty-second Street, for all its shortcomings, was a place in which black and white musicians could interact in a way that led to natural bonds of friendship. The audience, or at least part of it, took a cue from this, leading to an unpretentious flow of social intercourse,"
Jeanie Bryson said of her father that "he could make people feel so special. He could be so sweet and charming that a person would go away with a broad smile on their face. It wasn't, as you might think from some of what's been written, a black or white issue. If he liked you, he was the same whether you were a dishwasher or a king. He was always laughing, full of life, and, I think, truly larger than life."
She's right. He took all his pain, all his resentment — he once said to me, "Jazz is too good for the United States," but I saw this as a passing anger, and it was — and by whatever mysterious process inverted it all, making himself into the fabulous creature and creation that he was, not only one of the greatest musicians of his century, but also this, especially this: a great healer That is an achievement even beyond his music; indeed, the music is an expression of it, along with his laughter. All this makes the present induced polarization of jazz a searing insult to the great heart, great soul, great mind, great art, and great life of John Birks Gillespie.
When Creed Taylor was producing the album Rhythmstick at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, he asked me to go to Newark airport to pick up Dizzy, who was flying in from Washington for the date. Dizzy came off the plane carrying that rhythm stick, a broom handle (I suppose) with pop-bottle caps nailed to it.
Shaking it, tapping it against his shoe sole, he could produce the most astonishingly complex rhythms. Phil Woods said that when he traveled with Dizzy (whom he called Sky King, because he was always flying somewhere), that thing would set off metal detectors in every airport they passed through. And you always knew where Dizzy was in the airport; you could hear it.
I hadn't seen him for a while, and when we got into the car, I said impetuously, "Gee, Birks, I'm glad to see you."
He tapped his forefinger on his sternum and said, earnestly, warmly, "Me too." I never felt more honored.
My friend Sahib Shihab fell ill with a cancer we all knew was terminal. I called Dizzy (as did Hale Smith), told him, and gave him the hospital number. There was nothing humorous in that conversation. He telephoned Sahib almost daily until Sahib died.
Jon Faddis, James Moody, and a few more of his friends were at Dizzy's bedside on January 6, 1993, when he too died of cancer.
It is my privilege that I can say I knew him. And oh yes, this too: once, just once, I sang a song with him.”
The soundtrack to the following video features Dizzy’s band performing Cool Breeze from volume 1 of the 1956 Southern American Tour three-CD set. The trombone solo is by Frank Rehak and the tenor sax solo is by Billie Mitchell.
Here’s producer’s Dave Usher interview with Lalo Schifrin about Dizzy and the 1956 tour by the band.