Friday, August 20, 2021

"Dizzy Gillespie - The Lion in Winter" - The Jazz Musician Interview

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This is a rarity because by March 1992, the year it appeared in The Jazz Musician, there were very few late-in-life interviews with Dizzy that appeared in the U.S. publications, mainly because Jazz had lost the following of a national press years ago.

Thankfully, Chip Stern made this one happen because on January 3, 1993, Dizzy passed away.

I have some fond, personal recollections of Dizzy having met him on a few occasions during some of his swings to The Left Coast in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Aside from his friendly jocularity both on and off stage, what I remember most about him was the fiery excitement his music generated on stage and the patience and grace he took as a teacher with a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters off stage. 

Although, you could tell he was exhausted after the set from Lalo Schifrin's Gillespiana he had just played with his quintet, he gathered us around him like a bunch of young lion cubs and “groomed” and steeped us in the traditions of Bebop, of which, he was one of the founders.

Here is “The Lion and Winter” interview that Chip Stern conducted with Dizzy.

“With rolling lawns, majestic driveways and obligatory collections of pricey cars, a series of splendid homes adorns Palisades Avenue, the main drag heading out towards Englewood, New Jersey, 

Here, where the reet meet the elite, resides one John Birks Gillespie: musical innovator, spiritual catalyst, twentieth-century revolutionary, still the road warrior and globe-trotting ambassador of America's classical music. 

Crossing the railroad tracks into downtown, the city appears a healthy tintype of Main Street U.S.A., its center dominated by a thirties public works-style municipal building. The scene brings to mind the considerably humbler environs of Cheraw, South Carolina, where Gillespie grew up, and the many roads since traveled that have brought him to this place.

Leaning against a street sign, I'm comforted to think that at least one of the good guys got a taste, got his due, and that, closing in on seventy-five, he's still going strong. Recent evidence includes such fine albums as Max + Dizzy: Paris 1989, an improvised encounter with the percussion master, and Live at the Royal Festival Hall, a big band/percussion date that reinforces his stature as composer and soloist. Not to mention his touring. For Dizzy Gillespie never stops working. Never. "I don't even look at my itinerary," he'd said over the phone. "Ask me where am I goin' and when I'm goin'? I don't know. The most I've been off now that I can recall was four weeks early in January [1991] when I had my cataracts operated on. Other than that, I always go. I take what I want and leave with it."

He'd just completed a week's engagement, sold out, at New York's prestigious Blue Note with his superb working band (featuring tenor discovery Ronald Holloway, who calls forth visions of Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins, and seasoned campaigners Ignacio Berroa, John Lee and Ed Cherry). He's planning a return in January '92 for a month of special appearances, with a different grouping each week, including an all-star ensemble, Latin band and his United Nations Big Band. In between, the road beckons.

Waiting on Birks to show, my eyes alight on a yellow-painted curb across from City Hall, signifying no parking. The sign above bears a more pointed message: DIZZY’S PLACE. Now, that's respect. Suddenly someone arrives from behind and snaps at my suspenders. "I'd have come into Manhattan to pick you up, man, but my wife won't let me take her car across the bridge," he says, sounding like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. A grin lights up that enormous face, suggesting Jabba the Hutt. It is the face of a man who never forgot what it felt like to be a child — perhaps not unlike his baby brother Miles. Yet where that reflective Mr. Davis seemed to ruminate on the hurts, the exuberant Mr. Gillespie reminisces on the joy. For a few seconds all I can do is stare — this is a boyhood hero — and soon find myself doing a Ralph Kramden routine, a-hum-na-hum-na-hum-na, tongue-tied in his presence.

"You know, Diz, this'll sound funny, but I'm a little intimidated by you, man."

"Hahaha, get outta here," Dizzy chortles, with a good-natured slap on the back for punctuation. "I'm no old what do you call 'em, those guys that sit out in the deserts ... old masters. I'm still a learner, just like you."

His car — his wife Lorraine's car — is a Mercedes 250 CES, a classic set of wheels. "I bought this new back in 1966, the same time we bought our house. Before that we lived in Corona, Queens, for years, a block away from Louis Armstrong." He reaches to the floor and picks up what appears to be a carved walking stick, embellished in a vaguely Mediterranean design. "Open it up," he suggests, and it turns out to be a kind of scabbard, revealing a short, nasty-looking blade.

"The equalizer, huh, Diz?"

"Yeaaaaahhh," he drawls. "Sometimes you'll be driving around here, and people are crazy, man, they'll just cut you off and think nothin' of it. One day these guys cut me off and I beep as they go by. When we come to the light, he starts to get out of his car, so I showed him this, you believe it, and that was that."

"Sort of like when Cab Calloway called you out in front of the band," I respond, referring to an incident in the 1930s where the heigh-de-ho man confronted a young Gillespie for allegedly throwing spitballs during his performance. And got his ass cut in the bargain. Gillespie giggles at the memory. "Cut his ass. Shit, I was tryin' to kill his ass. My blade was open before it left my pocket. We're tight now, though," he adds as an afterthought. "He realizes that he was wrong; he was accusin' me of somethin' I didn't do."

Diz turns off Palisades Avenue, proceeding through some wooded areas and along a meandering series of comfortable-looking streets and homes. "See this?" He beams, pointing to a street sign. "Here's Hollywood, and here's Vine. Somebody asks where you live, you tell 'em Hollywood and Vine."

All right, say something. "Sure is nice here. Do you ever get to enjoy this? 

Are you afraid that if you come off of the road you'll lose your lip or something?"

"No, I'm not afraid. I play every day anyway. Always playin' out and gettin' paid for it, at least two hundred days a year. That's why I haven't written anything in a long time. One time I was worried about my jaws, because when I do this" — Dizzy presses forefinger to embouchure, expanding those famous cheeks to roughly the size of a bowling ball — "there's a strain, and I thought my cheeks might give out. But when I do that — push it in, go on, put your strongest finger here and try and push in." His cheek resists my finger with the tensile strength of a bear's belly. "So, I don't think they're goin' to give out for a long time, as hard as they get."

"Did you always play the horn like that?"

"No, no. I started doing it about thirty years later. Not having had a teacher was the trouble; you try anything. Lorraine say, 'Hmmm, looks like your cheeks are coming out.' Before I knew it they were out like this.

"You know, the trumpet demands your time. Practice: That does it. You need to know exactly where you put your mouthpiece — got to be the same place all the time. That's what I work on. It always kicks your ass. You get a little better, but not too much.

"I have a regimen to warm up, yes. Whole tones. Starting at low G, you go up to C, and you come back down to G. Sometimes you do scales in thirds or fourths going up and coming down, sometimes fast, sometimes real slow. The idea is to get the sound of the notes properly. See, I asked a classical musician once, a very famous cat. I said, 'Do you practice?' He said, 'Every day.' I said, 'What if you didn't?' He said, 'Well, after one day you will notice you should have practiced; two days, your compatriots will notice; three days, the whole world will notice.' I don't practice exactly the way I did when I was coming up, but pretty close."

"So you've learned to pace yourself on the horn," I propose, "sort of like Sugar Ray or Muhammad Ali when they got older and didn't have those young legs to carry them. Rope-a-dope, right?"

Dizzy laughs. "You don't look at an instrument as a physical thing of fighting somebody. It's about finesse with this"  — he points to his brain. "You got to work out your ideas. Then there's no telling how long you can play, with the proper feelings.

"Sometimes you surprise yourself, let me tell you," he enthuses, gripping the steering wheel a little tighter. "This past spring I played on that boat ride around Manhattan with my band, like I'd never played before! I'd gone to the dentist and had this tooth worked on; it was loose, and he tightened it up. On that boat ride, everything I thought I wanted to play came out." He shakes his head, amazed. "I haven't played like that, boy... I never remember playing like that."

He pulls into the driveway of a long, capacious ranch-style house and eases into the garage, pointing out a white mark on the wall that lets him know when he's in danger of totalling the front end. Along the wall are trap cases bearing his name, packed and waiting — whatcha doing home, man? Entering the kitchen from the garage, I can hear Lorraine's voice in the distance, dishing the dirt about the Clarence Thomas hearings with a friend on the phone. Their living room is laid out to emphasize its spaciousness — the kind of simple understatement only money can buy—and no one needs to say that it is set aside for special occasions. I pull a dozen roses out of my bag for Diz to give Lorraine, as he motions down to the basement.

If the rest of the house is Lorraine's domain, the expansive basement — with its wood panels, small bar, pool table, upright piano, television, synthesizer, drum machine, eight-track recorder and ancient stereo — is clearly Diz's crib, part rehearsal space, part rec room. In one corner is a 28-inch Wuhan Chinese cymbal, a real beast, and a set of golden-chrome Remo drums, compliments of Louie Bellson. There's a JVC compact stereo — still in its box— that someone has sent to Diz, he can't recall who. "People are always sending me stuff," he says simply, and offers his guest a drink.

"I was born October twenty-first, 1917. I always thought I was a musician. Thought I was a musician before I really was a musician. At first I had a trombone—I had no trombone, but I had the school's horn, you see. That was the only thing left. I played on it the best I could. I was little. I was only eleven-and-a-half, and my arms weren't long enough to make that stretch, so I could only reach a few of them positions. Didn't have a trumpet. Boy next door, Brother Hampton, he let me practice on his trumpet. So, by the time I put the trombone down, I could play a little bit in B flat.

"What happened next, a guy named Sonny Matthews came back home. Sonny was an experienced musician who took lessons from his mother and he played some piano, too. Well, he knew who I was, because everybody knows one another in Cheraw. And then his grandmother was Miss Bates. We went to the same church, and every Sunday morning I'd be there waitin' to help Miss Bates out with her cane. I was very close to that family.

"So this big guy came and got me: 'Hey, Sonny Matthews wants to see you.' 'Ahhh, yeah,' 1Isaid, 'okay.' I'm a little cocky — and here I know only one key. Sonny sat at the piano and said, 'Well, whatta ya wanna play?' I said, 'What d'you know?' He called 'Nagasaki' — but I only know the B flat key, and he calls it in C. Man, I couldn't find one note. He said, 'Something must be wrong.' I was cryin' an' everything, and I thought, 'How'm I ever gonna pick myself up and be a musician?'

"So I learned how to read. My father had a whole band in the house, almost. He had a piano, a bass violin—only had one string, but then we only played in B flat anyway. I taught myself all the chords and voicings and inversions on that piano, by myself. No teachers. We didn't have no books. All the schools were segregated. I learned how to read and started playin' at home. 

Later, I taught all the piano players how to play the comp — the accompaniment — in our music. But I never tried to really play the piano, I wanted to play the trumpet. I'd heard Roy Eldridge on the radio—on somebody else's radio. I was playing a little bit by that time, and I didn't know Louis Armstrong. Roy Eldridge, he was my man — I tried to copy his whole thing.

"The trombone player where I went to school in Cheraw, Bill MacNeil, reminded me of J. C. Higginbotham, real rough, you know, growling cat. He got caught peekin' in the white homes around there." There's a short pause, and Dizzy's voice trails off, grows distant. "They killed him. Bill MacNeil ... Bill MacNeil ... he must have been about eighteen years old then or something, you know."

It's a poignant moment. Gillespie's music has always been a freedom song, pointing to an imagined future of incredible beauty, transcending the ignorance of cracker conventions, even as it signaled black people to get out of the way, too, something new is coming through. Transforming the bluesiness and locomotion of swing-era dances into a deep, dignified modern concert music, it's full of joys and dangers. In Dizzy's hands it's been less a stage for protest than for affirmation. But if he's too proud to wear the scars of Dixie on his sleeve, the memories linger, whispering of how far we've come, how far we have to go.

"I was back in Cheraw for a Dizzy Gillespie Day, and the mayor invited me to a cocktail party in his house," he recalls. "So I thought I'd get a haircut. I went into a barber shop in town, and the guy told me, 'We don't cut colored hair.' Ain't that a bitch? And I'm definitely the most well-known person ever to come out of Cheraw. I told the mayor that, and he was shocked: 'He can't do that.' Mmmmm.

"Racism? I grew up with it. I remember it stopped me from playin' with a little boy named John Burrell; he was my little pal then, and his mother and father said, 'Now, look, you can't play with that boy no more.' Then there was a white boy, Kenny McManus. His family had two swimmin' pools: a white one and a black one. It's where I used to swim and dive when I was little, might have been ten, eleven. I used to dive for money, off a high buildin' up there, coulda broke my neck. But I was a daredevil. I've been a daredevil all my life, really. They'd say I was 'bad,' you know, but they called me by my name. I'd always get into trouble, fightin' every day in school.

"Damn, when I think how close I came to being hitched up behind a plow, man. I finally got out of Cheraw when my mother moved to Philadelphia my last year in school, and soon as summertime came, I hitched a ride up. And I stayed till I moved to New York in '37. The first week there, got a job for eight dollars a week. Yeah, big money. I don't know how many clothes I bought off that, all Parisian tailored stuff, on time. I'd pay a dollar-and-a-half a week."

That era also provided Gillespie with the best possible training grounds for a young player — the big bands. Within those juggernauts he learned the craft of his horn, how to play lead and in a section, and was tested every night by his fellow trumpet players in countless styles. A few years later Teddy Hill, in whose band Diz first traveled to Paris, began booking a Harlem club called Minton's, which became the crucible for a fiery new musical language known as bebop. Dizzy, of course, was present at the creation.

"Oh, that was some time, boy. We'd go in there and then we'd go to the Uptown House after that, and you'd come out in the daylight. That band was Nick Fenton on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, Monk was on piano, Joe Guy on trumpet and Kermit Scott on sax. Charlie Christian used to come all the time. He left his amplifier down there when he died. Old guys didn't come down too much, except Roy, he could make it. Me, Charlie Shavers and 'Bama — Carl Wooley — all three of us would jump on Roy, gang up on him," he laughs at the memory. "Of course, Roy'd come through the door hitting high C after high C from the first note, an' he was ready to take on all comers. He was the most competitive man you ever met, ooooh weeee!

"Monk was the most individual player who came through. Monk with the minor-sixth with the sixth in the bass: He taught us that chord. We used to change stuff to keep guys who couldn't play off the bandstand. In the daytime I'd call Monk and say, 'Hey, listen to this.' I learned 'How High the Moon' from Nat Cole, who was playin' at Kelly's Stables. 'What's the name of that number, Nat? Play that for me again. Damn, them keys are movin'.' And I hurried to Minton's, showed that to Monk. We would make numbers up, but with standards, we'd change them around, put in new melodies and have a new tune. Like 'Groovin' High' came out of 'Whispering.'

"Somewhere in there I met Charlie Parker. He was with Jay McShann, I was with Cab. This was what, 1939, '40? Buddy Anderson took me to see him. We played at the Booker Washington Hotel. When I first heard Charlie Parker play, his style was basically there. He played tunes inside of tunes. And the chords were the correct ones, too. Man, he was cute, all right.

"Now you see, my training was a little more sophisticated than Charlie Parker's, harmonically. I showed him a lotta things on the piano. But Charlie Parker had the style of gettin' those notes outl And the way that he got from one note to another, the way that he set 'em up—nobody'd ever done nothin' like that before.

"We were all tryin' to play like Charlie Parker. That's why you can't tell who's who on some of them early records, like that Metronome All-Star date with me'n Miles and Fats Navarro. Even I can't tell who's playing what. All the trumpet players of that time tried to play like him. But Charlie Parker was indescribable.... 'You took advantage of my friend, you cur,'" he chuckles, recalling an incident where Bird confronted a redneck who'd gone upside Dizzy's head with a bottle. "Mmm, mmm ... a spiritual man."

Though Diz and Bird were the priest and prophet of bebop, they went separate ways off the bandstand, and their differing lifestyles pulled them apart at times. "Because Charlie Parker used dope — they said — all the young musicians who wanted to follow Charlie Parker went that way: like Miles, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, J. J. Johnson, Fats Navarro. They all felt that would help them — hah hah hah. I mean, we were brothers. But he was the one who was interested in that. He never offered me none. And I never saw him do it."

Diz wanders off upstairs to check in with Lorraine, the anchor who helps him stay focused, who kept his other life together while Gillespie led his great big bands of the Forties and Fifties and expanded on the Afro-Cuban and Latin innovations he introduced to modern jazz through his association with Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo. When he returns downstairs with a big case, I've started to unpack and set up his new stereo. The technology fascinates him, particularly the compact discs.

"How many of those you get in that little drawer, there?"

"One at a time seems to work best, Diz." He unpacks his case to appraise a new gold-plated trumpet from Martin, engraved with his name and otherwise busy with ornate detail. The Dizzy bell points up at a 45-degree angle. 

"Don't play no regular horn anymore," he explains. "The sound is prettier to my ear when it's less direct."

He takes out the mouthpiece and begins warming his lip with bends and shakes and long tones that sound like soulful duck calls. Now and then he pauses to pick up and admire the new horn, check out the action; then he returns to the mouthpiece. Finally he puts them together and runs through pedal tones and scales with the mute, finishing with several of his melodies on the open horn.

"Yeaaaah," he says, fingering the valves, "when she gets broken in, a few weeks down the road, this is going to be a nice horn."

"Sounds like she blows real easy, Diz."

He fixes me with a stagey stare. "Sheeeeeet. Ain't none of them blow easy," he laughs, and starts in again with more purpose. At times he stops and yawns, then jumps back in; got to stay on that horn. Maybe I'm beginning to wear too, with this "tell me all about 1941" line, and here we are in 1991. I pack up so that he can get on and rest.

It's dark as he backs out of the driveway. "Maybe next time I'll get to say hello to Lorraine," I suggest.

"Sure, man," Diz nods. "She really appreciated them flowers. What people don't understand about Lorraine, her being so strong and all, is that she's really very shy. I've always felt comfortable around people, but sometimes I'm too trusting. But Lorraine, man, no one can put anything over on her."

"Does she follow the Baha'i faith also?"

"Noooo," he says gravely. "She's a devoted Roman Catholic. She thinks Baha'i is some kind of weird religion out the jungle. I just say to her, 'Now you take care of yours and I will take care of mine— "—and I'll meet you at the finish line?"

"Yeah. She believes all of this about Jesus, how he brought somebody up from the dead, and he died and went to heaven and come back. I don't see no sense in making all that happen to make you live a full life. I don't exactly believe in heaven and hell. But I believe that there is a Being somewhere that can create miracles over here and in the outer realms. I'm a believer. I believe in God.

"I was raised Methodist, but I never followed any one religion. I read some of the Koran, like I read the Bible and other books. The Baha'i religion came out of Islam — all religions are similar, but these two are closer together. It originates with this very religious Muslim in Persia during the last part of the past century. He started preaching that now is the time for a new message from God. Well, you know how the Muslims felt about that, because they think God's not going to talk to mankind no more after the Koran. They think that's the last message we're going to get. But I don't know why God would stop now. If God was that intelligent, how could he give you everything he'd want you to know in that little time?"

How indeed? But then, among God's more sublime miracles, John Birks Gillespie must rank up there with sunsets and tax refunds. For Dizzy is all about music and spirit.

Simple as that, and if Charlie Parker came down with the word, Dizzy made it into flesh, gave it substance and, for fifty years on, has been performing and teaching it to succeeding generations of jazz musicians. His innovations remain the cornerstone of almost everything we play.

Dimly through these reflections, it occurs to me that we've been circling these streets for several minutes. "Yeah," Diz confirms absentmindedly, "I don't do much driving at night. Can't hardly read them street signs."

He tries another route but ends up in the same place. Diz makes a U-turn and doubles back around, cruising past an enormous California-style house, enclosed by high stucco walls.

"You know who's supposed to have bought that house and be movin' in? The Boss."

"Bruce ... ?"

"Yeaaahhhh. You think that's something, Eddie Murphy's got him like a seven-million dollar estate up around here that's something else. Oooooo weeee!"

Dizzy stops to inspect a street sign and regain his bearings. He clucks his tongue and shakes his head as he makes another attempt to reach Palisades Avenue. At the next corner there's a middle-aged couple out on the street, unpacking their car from a shopping trip. Diz rolls down his window. "Excuse me," he says, beckoning, and there's a giddy glint of recognition in their eyes.

"Answer me this. How can you be driving around only a block from where you live and be so totally lost?"

They double over with laughter. They're still laughing as we drive off.”

— March 1992

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