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It is impossible to fully assess the footprint that John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie left on the path forward of Modern Jazz in the second half of the 20th century.
But the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is doing its best to comprehend as much of it as possible through its numerous postings about Diz on these pages.
Here’s another attempt to acknowledge Dizzy’s significance, this time with the aid of John Edward Hasse.
Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington ” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).
The following appear in the Oct. 21, 2017 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
“In 1985, as a newly arrived music curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I was given virtual carte blanche to collect as I wished. What should I seek first? I decided to invite one of jazz’s foremost living innovators—Dizzy Gillespie—to donate his previous “bent” trumpet. I mailed him that request, but heard nothing. After a few months, a colleague who knew him advised, “Get his wife, Lorraine, involved.” So I wrote essentially the same letter to her and figured she might not respond, either. Three days after mailing the letter, a big UPS box arrived. Inside was her husband’s last trumpet. I think she wanted it…out of the
Several months later, Dizzy himself came to formally present the instrument to the museum and drew over a dozen reporters and TV crews. The charismatic Gillespie filled the air with electricity, alternately reminiscent, wise and witty. As the event was winding down, a tall British reporter asked, “Mr. Gillespie, 500 years from now, what will that trumpet be saying?” Gillespie deadpanned, “Five hundred years from now, that trumpet…ain’t gonna be saying nothin’!”
I silently disagreed, for at the Smithsonian his trumpet will be telling stories for centuries; in fact, millions have already seen the trumpet on display there.
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw, S.C., the son of a weekend bandleader. Spending two years performing in Philadelphia, he earned the nickname “Dizzy” for his humorous antics. In 1937, he was drawn to the jazz magnet of New York, where he apprenticed in the big bands of Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway and Earl Hines, practiced obsessively, and joined in jam sessions.
In 1940, he met the 20-year-old alto-sax sensation Charlie Parker. They bonded immediately and, over the next few years, invented a new paradigm: music with asymmetric rhythms, rapid-fire tempos, fast-moving and complex chord progressions, and virtuoso improvisations using multiple scales and altered tones. This music—which much of the public found radically different, puzzling, or off-putting—was intended more for listening in small nightclubs than for dancing in big ballrooms, as had been swing music. By 1945, the new style—known as bebop or bop—was fully formed, as heard on such Gillespie recordings as “Shaw ’Nuff” and “Hot House.”
While playing trumpet in Calloway’s band, Gillespie learned about Latin rhythms from his Cuban-born bandmate Mario Bauzá and became a proponent of fusing American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion, on such pieces as “Manteca” and “Night in Tunisia.”
Gillespie developed an unmistakable trumpet style — rich with drama, bravura, humor, technique, and melodic and rhythmic invention — that set him far ahead of his contemporaries. Even today, his torrid cascades of high notes dazzle the ear. He also composed and collaborated on a number of jazz standards such as “Groovin’ High,” “Anthropology” and “Salt Peanuts.”
His impact was enormous. He was one of the most influential trumpeters of the 20th century, taking his distinguished place in the lineage of jazz trumpet royalty that began with Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge. Gillespie affected virtually every trumpeter who came after him.
Gillespie attracted attention with his beret, goatee, horn-rimmed glasses, and, when playing, froggy cheeks. From 1951 on, a 45-degree-uptilted bell on his trumpet gave him further visual identity. A bandmate fell on his horn, bending it, and Gillespie found that he liked the sound projection. From then on, each of his trumpets was custom-made with an uptilted bell.
Beneath the showy surface, however, he was dead serious. “Men have died for this music. You can’t get no more serious than that.” Yet, as he said, “If I can make people laugh, and if that makes them receptive to my music, I’m gonna do it.” Unlike his contemporary Miles Davis, Gillespie embraced showmanship and charmed audiences with his ebullient humor, funny routines, and comic dancing.
Beginning in 1956, the U.S. State Department sent Gillespie on goodwill concert tours to Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Insisting that ordinary people—not just VIPs—be admitted to his performances, he disarmed anti-American skeptics and won fans wherever he went, even among people who didn’t know jazz.
In his later years, he became an elder statesman of jazz, a champion of the tradition, and an advocate for global musical exchange. He formed his United Nation Orchestra in 1988 to bring together musicians from North and South America. In 1989, he traveled to 27 countries to give 300 performances. Struck by pancreatic cancer, he died in 1993.
The long roster of musicians Gillespie mentored over several generations includes pianist Billy Taylor, trombonists David Baker and J.J. Johnson, saxophonists James Moody, Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath and Paquito d’Rivera, and trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jon Faddis.
The list of musicians Dizzy has inspired is much, much longer.ß