[JPL] Fw: telegraph.co.uk: Appreciation of Dizzy

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Wed Dec 1 07:23:30 EST 2004


      The funny man who brought joy to jazz
      (Filed: 11/11/2004) 

Martin Gayford on the enduring legacy of Dizzy Gillespie

Among the candidates who have failed to become President of the United States was John Birks Gillespie. In 1964, Gillespie ran on a platform of abolishing income tax and appointing Miles Davis director of the CIA. Instead, Lyndon Johnson was elected. 

      Bebop revolutionary: Dizzy Gillespie 

Though he never succeeded in transforming politics, John Birks - better known as Dizzy - Gillespie was instrumental in another revolution. A great trumpeter, he was also the mastermind behind the bebop revolution that turned jazz upside down in the 1940s. He was one of the greatest teachers - a fact that the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band will demonstrate at the Barbican tomorrow.

For decades, Gillespie's bands served as a sort of musical university. John Coltrane sat in his saxophone section, the Modern Jazz Quartet began its long life as his rhythm section, Ray Brown got his first break as his bassist. 

Some earlier jazz musicians were worried about others "stealing" their stuff. Gillespie's attitude was very different. It was summed up by a memorable remark he once made about his close friend, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. "Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it. You can't steal a gift." Gillespie, however, was careful to indicate his own debts. He was, he felt, part of a grand succession of jazz trumpeters.

"I'm on a direct line from Buddy Bolden. After Bolden there was King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and me." And like Armstrong and Eldridge, Gillespie was an extraordinary virtuoso. He won his reputation by playing his trumpet a fashion faster, higher and more complicated than anything ever heard before.

Other trumpeters idolised Gillespie. But now, more than a decade after his death in 1993, his reputation is in danger of fading away. Miles Davis was in some ways a Gillespie disciple, but one may find 20 of his CDs in a shop to every one of Dizzy's. What's more, the trumpeter Jon Faddis, co-leader of the alumni band, has complained about "the assertion that Charlie Parker was the sole genius of the bebop era".

Why should this be so? One answer is that Gillespie's contribution was partly theoretical - helping develop sophisticated new harmonies, for instance - whereas Parker was the more moving solo voice. Another is that Dizzy wasn't taken seriously because he wasn't a solemn man. A natural humorist, he even looked funny. His cheeks ballooned out when he played in a fashion that intrigued dental science (the syndrome has been named "Gillespie's pouches").

But he put his humour to serious purposes. Dizzy said that Louis Armstrong "wouldn't let racism dim the joy of his life". Obviously, he felt the same. On tour in Scotland, he would accost passers-by with the words, "Pardon me, my name is Gillespie, and I'm looking for my relatives."

But the point was serious - he discovered late in life that the slave owner who bought his grandmother (the daughter of a Nigerian chief) was also his grandfather. Similarly, the notion of a hip, black president was only partly a put-on (though Miles Davis might not have been an ideal CIA boss).

Fundamentally - unlike many jazz heroes - Gillespie was a happy man. His marriage lasted for more than half a century and he lived to 75. 

And that comes through in his music. It lacks the dark undertones, the brooding melancholy, the touches of tragedy of Parker, Coltrane, or Davis. Of the last, he once modestly said, "I know his music has a deeper spiritual value than mine." Perhaps that's true, but not many musicians contributed more to the joyous moods of jazz.

a.. Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band, Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), tomorrow. 

Tom Reney
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