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Master Of The Horn

Genius, player, teacher, jester—Dizzy Gillespie was all that jazz.
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

The setting might change--the New Morning Club in Paris, Ronnie Scott's in London, Carnegie Hall in New York or the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles--but the routine was always the same. Dizzy Gillespie would show up at the gig with a pocketful of Cubans, culled from the boxes he'd acquired during his many trips to Europe. Just before show time, he'd hand me a couple of Cohibas, Hoyo de Monterreys or Romeo y Julietas and say, "I was going to bring you a box of these, but I forgot" or, "I had a box of these for you, but I didn't think you'd like them." As if on cue, I'd freak out, complaining, "Man, why do you keep telling me that?" Then Diz's beatific grin would spread across his huge face and he'd take the stage. There, those famous Gillespie pouches would inflate and release the world's most beautiful trumpet music.

After the first round of applause subsided, he'd step to the microphone and say, "Take me! I'm yours." He'd pause, then continue, "Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the band." The band members would move around the bandstand, shaking hands as if they were meeting for the first time. Shtick, yes, but always funny. Then would come the real treat: an hour of the glorious sound of Gillespie.

Later that evening, he'd hand me some Montecristos or La Gloria Cubanas. Dizzy Gillespie was a scamp, a jokester, a comedian and an inveterate tease who certainly had my number, but he was also a great friend who always had good cigars.

In my eight years as Gillespie's road manager and occasional recording producer, I knew a man who successfully combined the characteristics of consummate performer, international goodwill ambassador and developer of young talent with incredible musical innovation. It is as an innovator that the Diz, who died in 1993, will best be remembered, for it was he, along with other giants like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Pettiford, who created a new conception of improvisational music, called bebop, that would forever change the face of jazz. But his true genius may have shown in his ability to reconcile the many dimensions of himself into one beautiful personality. To understand the many facets of the man, it is necessary to go back 80 years.

When John Birks Gillespie was born in 1917, Cheraw, South Carolina, was a typical small Southern town of a few thousand people situated between here and nowhere. Whites lived on one side of the tracks, blacks on the other. During the week the area was a picture of bucolic calm; on weekends it jumped with the music of jazz bands meant to be danced to. Birks' father was a bricklayer during the week and a piano player on weekends. He had a piano, a bass fiddle, a guitar, a mandolin and drums set up in the living room, and kept his band's instruments at home for safety's sake. Into this world stepped Birks, the youngest of nine children, armed with an abiding curiosity that soon led him to discover how each instrument worked. By the time he was four, he could play but one tune on the piano: "Coon Shine Lady." His mother must really have loved him, because he played it over and over, and was allowed to live.

Gillespie the Elder had an interesting approach to discipline. Every Sunday morning he would ask each child what he had done wrong the previous week. Regardless of the answer, each got a whipping, because the Elder was convinced that everyone must need punishment even if he didn't know the reason. "Sometimes I'd holler, 'But I didn't do nothing,' try to duck him and hide under the bed," Dizzy recalled. "As soon as I bent over and tried to get away, 'Whack!' He'd hit me again. Papa never missed." The experience, the younger Gillespie allowed, created "a tough little rebel."

Dizzy's father died of an asthma attack in 1927, leaving the family destitute, and his mother was forced to take in laundry for $1.50 a week. Anger was the residue, and Dizzy took it to school with him. He was so disruptive that one teacher was driven to grab him around the neck and choke him. Then fate took him on a new tack. When Dizzy was in the third grade the principal acquired some band instruments, and he was put on trombone. Being small, he couldn't push the slide out far enough to play all the notes, but he loved it and worked hard until, one day, he heard new and higher notes, notes that truly thrilled him. The next-door neighbor had given his son a trumpet. That was the sound for John Birks. He put down the trombone forever and got himself a new instrument.

It was as a dancer, however, that Gillespie would develop his first reputation. In his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop (DaCapo Press, $15.95), Dizzy wrote, "I used to make a little money at the white dances in Cheraw. They had a place called The Country Club above the drugstore where most white dances were held. Whenever I heard music up there, I'd stick my head in. They'd be hollering, 'Come on in, John Birch. Come on in and dance for us.' " His specialty was called the snake hips, and when he snaked his way onto the floor, "the money would start falling," he said. "I'd make two or three dollars in just a few minutes. That was a lot of money for a young boy during the Depression to scoop up off a dance floor." And so dancing became another weapon in a formidable entertainment arsenal. (His unique technique is shown to great effect in the 1947 film short Jivin' in Bebop.) As Dizzy's career progressed, some musicians scorned his willingness to entertain on any level. To them, as to many young musicians of today, playing jazz was a solemn rite. Dancers, on the other hand, loved what he did. Jimmy Slyde, the internationally renowned tap dancer, tells me, "He thought like a dancer. The way he would arrange and construct things seemed to always be in a vein that I would like to capture. I was a bebop fan."

As his trumpet music improved, Gillespie's popularity grew. He played with his own band frequently, and got gigs with other groups as well. He was a local hero, but with a chink in his armor: he could play only in B-flat. And, since he couldn't read music, he was blissfully unaware of any of the other keys. Unaware, that is, until Sonny Matthews came to town.

Matthews, a trumpet player from Philadelphia, came to Cheraw to visit his family. Sonny had heard about Dizzy, and Diz about Sonny. A summit between the two trumpeters was inevitable, and they decided to converge on a tune called "Nagasaki," which Gillespie didn't know. Furthermore, it was in the key of C, so Dizzy couldn't find a note. "I apologized, but I felt so crushed I cried, because I was supposed to be the town's best trumpet player," he said. The humbling experience proved to be a turning point for the obstinate young musician, who having vowed to learn to read music, studied and practiced until, within a few months, he could "hit" in several keys. His newfound musical literacy would serve him well in later years, allowing him to work as an arranger.

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