Wednesday, February 5, 2020

"The Great Gillespie" - Whitney Balliett

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This blog has always been as much about Jazz writings as it has been about the music and its makers.

For if it is true that Jazz can’t be taught but that it can be learned, fans of the music can acquire a great deal of knowledge about Jazz from those who write about it in an informed way.

Sometimes the writing is not only instructive and helps us appreciate the music more, but is itself beautiful, elegant and artistic.

This is generally the case with the essays on Jazz written for The New Yorker for many years by the late Whitney Balliett [1926-2007].

Whitney’s New Yorker pieces are as stylish as anything ever written on Jazz.

One of my favorites is The Great Gillespie [Dizzy Gillespie 1917-1993]. It is included in the 41  New Yorker essays published by Whitney as an anthology entitled Dinosaurs in the Morning [1962].

The article centers around his review of three recordings that Dizzy put out in the late 1950’s, but it goes well beyond Whitney’s thoughts about these LP’s and ultimately helps us understand Dizzy’s true significance in the evolution of Bebop [an unfortunate term - at best].

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved. [Paragraphing modified to fit the blog format.]

OF ALL the uncommunicative, secret-society terms that jazz has surrounded itself with, few are more misleading than "bebop." Originally a casual onomatopoeic word used to describe the continually shifting rhythmic accents in the early work of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk, it soon became a generic term, whose tight, rude sound implied something harsh and unattractive. (Jazz scholars, who are nonpareil at unearthing irrelevancies, have discovered that the two syllables first appeared in jazz as a bit of mumbo-jumbo in a vocal recorded in the late twenties.)

Although many admirers of Parker and Gillespie—and occasionally Parker and Gillespie themselves—helped this misapprehension along in the mid-forties through their playing, bebop was, in the main, a graceful rococo explosion. It replaced the old Republican phrasing with long, teeming melodic lines, melted the four-four beat into more fluid rhythms, and added fresh harmonies, the combination producing an arabesque music that had a wild beauty suggested in jazz up to that time only by certain boogie-woogie pianists (another of jazz's better-known code terms) and by such soloists, often considered freakish, as Pee Wee Russell, Dickie Wells, Jabbo Smith, and Roy Eldridge. Bebop was an upheaval in jazz that matched the arrival of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, but it was not, as it is frequently taken to be, a total musical revolution. (The most usable elements of the movement have long since been absorbed into jazz, and the term itself has fallen into disuse, but a variation, known as "hard bop/' persists.)

To be sure, it introduced radical techniques, but it stuck close to the blues, which it dressed up in flatted chords and various rhythmic furbelows. The chord structures of popular standards, which provided the rest of its diet, were slightly altered, and were given new titles and often barefacedly copyrighted by their "composers." This renovating process, begun in the mid-thirties by men like Duke Ellington and Count Basic, proliferated in the bebop era. Thus, "Indiana" reappeared as "Donna Lee" and "Ice Freezes Red"; "How High the Moon" became "Bean at the Met," "Ornithology," and "Bird Lore"; and "Just You, Just Me" turned into "Evidence," "Spotlite," and "Mad Bebop." The music made little attempt at fresh ensemble voicings, but relied instead on complex unison figures—in the manner of the John Kirby band—that sounded like fattened-up extensions of the solos they enclosed. On top of that, bebop musicians continued to investigate, though in a sometimes obtuse, hyperthyroid way, the same lyricism pursued by their great predecessors. A final confusing peculiarity of bebop is that although Parker, Gillespie, and Monk, each of whom possessed enormous talent, emerged at about the same time, they never enjoyed the spotlight simultaneously, as did such slightly older men as Hawkins, Eldridge, Art Tatum, and Sidney Cat-lett. Gillespie had become celebrated by the late forties; Parker was at the height of his fame when he died, in 1955; and it is only recently that Monk has slid wholly into view. Meanwhile, Gillespie, who remains one of the handful of supreme jazz soloists, seems—possibly because of the widespread emulation of an uneven ex-student of his, Miles Davis—to have been put to pasture.

When Gillespie appeared on the first bebop recordings, in 1944, he gave the impression—largely because a long recording ban had just ended—of springing up full-blown. He had, however, been slowly developing his style for some seven or eight years. Although Gillespie was for a time an unashamed copy of Eldridge, the records he made in the late thirties with Cab Galloway—in which he tossed off strange, wrong-sounding notes and bony phrases that seemed to begin and end in arbitrary places—prove that his own bent, mixed perhaps with dashes of Lester Young and Charlie Christian, was already in view. By 1944, the transformation was complete, and Gillespie had entered his second phase.

Few trumpeters have been blessed with so much technique. Gillespie never merely started a solo-he erupted into it. A good many bebop solos began with four- or eight-bar breaks, and Gillespie, taking full advantage of this approach (a somewhat similar technique had been used, to great effect, in much New Orleans jazz, but had largely fallen into disuse), 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 that were carried, usually in one breath, past the end of the break and well into the solo itself. The result, in such early Gillespie efforts as "One-Bass Hit" and "Night in Tunisia," were complex, exuberant, and well-designed. (Several of Gillespie's flights were transcribed note for note into ensemble passages for various contemporary big bands, an honor previously granted to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke.)

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 about in the upper register—of being constantly on the verge of flying apart. However, his playing was held together by his extraordinary rhythmic sense, which he shared with  the  other  founders  of  bebop.  When   one pinned down the melodic lines of his solos, they revealed a flow of notes that was not so much a melody, in the conventional sense, as a series of glancing but articulate sounds arranged in sensible rhythmic blocks that alternated from on-the-beat playing to offbeat punctuation, from double-and-triple-time to half time. One felt that Gillespie first spelled out his rhythmic patterns in his head and then filled in their spaces with appropriate notes. A hard, brilliant, flag-waving style, in which emotion was frequently hidden in floridity, it persisted until four or five years ago, when Gillespie popped, again seemingly full-blown, into his third, and present, period.

A   mild-mannered,   roundish   man,   who   wears thick-rimmed spectacles and a small goatee, and has a new-moon smile and a muffled, potatoey way of
speaking, Gillespie is apt, when playing, to puff out his cheeks and neck into an enormous balloon, as if he were preparing himself for an ascent into the ionosphere. He has a habit, while his associates play, of performing jigs or slow, swaying shufflings, accented by occasional shouts of encouragement— bits of foolishness that he discards, like a mask, when he takes up his own horn, an odd-shaped instrument whose specially designed bell points in the direction of the upper bleachers. Gillespie, at forty-two, an age at which a good many jazz musicians begin falling back on a card file of phrases— their own and others' — built up through the years, is playing with more subtlety and invention than at any time in his past.

He has learned one of the oldest and best tricks in art — how to give the effect of great power by implying generous amounts of untapped energy. This method is opposed to the dump-everything approach, which swamps, rather than whets, the listener's appetite.

His tone has taken on a middle-age spread; his baroque flow of notes has been judiciously edited; his phrase endings seem less abrupt; and he now cunningly employs a sense of dynamics that mixes blasts with whispers, upper-register shrieks with plaintive asides. However, his intensity, together with his rhythmic governor, which still sets the basic course of his solos, remains unchanged. Provided a solo does not open with a break, which he will attack with the same old ferocity, Gillespie may now begin with a simple phrase, executed in an unobtrusive double time and repeated in rifflike fashion. Then he will lean back into half time and deliver a bellowing upper-register figure, which may be topped with a triple-time descending arpeggio composed of innumerable notes that dodge and dodge and then lunge ahead again. These continue without pause for several measures, terminating in a series of sidling half-valved notes, which have a bland complacency, like successful businessmen exchanging compliments. In the next chorus, he may reverse the procedure by opening with a couple of shouts, and then subside into a blinding run, seemingly made up of hundred-and-twenty-eighth notes, that will end in high scalar exercises. And so it goes. Gillespie rarely repeats himself in the course of a solo. In fact, he is able to construct half a dozen or more choruses in which the element of surprise never falters.

Gillespie is in good form on three fairly recent records—"Crosscurrents" (American Recording Society), "Sonny Side Up," and "Have Trumpet Will Excite!" (Verve). …

There isn't an unforgettable moment on the[se] records, but there aren't many passages that could be surpassed by Gillespie's contemporaries, most of whom would be in other lines of work if it weren't for him.”

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