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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

(continued from page 2)

To understand how it happened, you have to appreciate that to call the Diz of that period the enfant terrible of jazz was to put it mildly. Dizzy was renowned for his antics, and he loved to terrorize musicians while they slept. Giving someone a "hot foot" was no big thing. Nor was putting the end of a lit cigarette between someone's lips or lighting cellophane on a guy's chest. So, one night in Hartford, Connecticut, when the trumpet player Jonah Jones started throwing spitballs at the drummer, Cozy Cole, Calloway, who wasn't onstage at the time, blamed Dizzy. Who else? Cab went nuts, and the more Dizzy denied the charges, the madder he got. A scuffle ensued, and out came the knife that Diz always carried. Moments later, there was blood all over Calloway's trademark white tails. Though Calloway wasn't seriously hurt, Dizzy found himself out of a job once more.

Again, Dizzy Gillespie never looked back. He'd been jamming at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem with pianist Monk, bassist Pettiford and drummer Kenny "Klook-Mop" Clarke. Together they were creating the music called bebop. "Musically, we were changing the way we spoke to reflect the way we felt," Dizzy said. "New phrasing came in with the new accent." Among the elements of the genre were constant improvisation, lightning tempo and a harmonic scale marked by a preponderance of flat notes (although Diz would famously claim, "We don't flat our fifths, we drink them"). The speed of play and the fierce competition between musicians demanded incredible virtuosity of anyone who dared to participate at all.

The contemporary trumpeter Graham Haynes, the son of Gillespie collaborator Roy Haynes and a lover of Punch Rothschilds (I know because he smokes mine all the time), says that when he first picked up the horn, "Dizzy scared the living shit out of me. I felt like--I'll never be able to play like that. The licks were flying around at 200 miles an hour. I don't know how he did it." Dizzy's recordings continue to astound the young trumpet players of today.

By 1942, it had become clear to Diz that one element was still missing in his career: a suitable partner to help him express his ideas. This figure soon materialized in the person of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. Dizzy had met "Bird" in his hometown of Kansas City while on tour with Cab. They practiced together and discussed ideas whenever Dizzy passed through K.C., but the techniques they had been developing separately wouldn't mature until they joined Earl Hines' band, which included Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan.

As it happened, Hines and Eckstine had given fate a little nudge, enticing each of the musicians into the band by saying that the other was going to join. The ruse was forgivable. It created one of the greatest collaborations in the annals of music. The recordings Dizzy and Parker made are a testament to the gigantic change the two wrought in the evolution of modern jazz. Dizzy changed for all time the way the trumpet is played, and Bird did no less for the saxophone. The two musicians played together off and on and would remain friends until Parker's death in 1955.

The 1940s were years of phenomenal activity for Dizzy. He performed with bands big and small: Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Les Hite, Lucky Millender--the who's who of American jazz band leaders. He wrote and arranged for Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey, and was musical director for Billy Eckstine's big band. He and Oscar Pettiford co-led the first bebop band at the Onyx Club on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, with Billie Holiday on the bill. Max Roach was on drums and George Wallington was the pianist. With Parker, Dizzy put together a band with the spectacular Bud Powell on piano, Roach on drums and Curley Russell on bass at a club in New York called the Three Deuces. He wrote compositions that would become jazz standards: "Salt Peanuts," "Night in Tunisia," "Woody 'n' You" and "Manteca." He brought the Cuban master congero, Chano Pozo, into his big band and, in so doing, Dizzy became the father of Latin jazz. Almost everyone Dizzy worked with achieved greatness: Charlie Christian, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Charlie Rouse, John Lewis and James Moody, to name a few.

As his music caught on, Dizzy attained cult status, his goatee, horn-rimmed glasses and beret invited imitation by jazz fans all over the world. In fact, the uniform we now think of as the beatnik look is a derivation of fashion à la Diz. Slang spoken by Dizzy and his bebop friends also found its way into the language of the day.

Not everyone loved the music, however. A reviewer for The New York Times in the late 1940s described it as "sensational, tasteless and insincere...without logic of development or even temporary continuity of idea. Strong doubts," he went on, "may be entertained that it is, in any serious sense, even recognizably music." Bebop proved inaccessible even to accomplished jazzmen. Louis Armstrong called it "malice." James Moody himself recalls his first impression of the music: "We had heard 'Salt Peanuts' that he and Charlie Parker had put out," says the saxophonist and flute player. "We would say, 'What the hell is that?' We didn't know, but we were hanging on to it." Moody knew enough to come running when in 1947 the great Gillespie suggested that he try out with the band as soon as he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force. He didn't make it on his first try, however. Someone said he didn't play loud enough. "Then, two months later, I got a telegram that said, 'You start with us tonight.' " Moody debuted with a "killer" band and continued to work with Dizzy Gillespie, on and off, for the next 45 years.

The diminishing economic returns of running a big band and his wife's ultimatum--it or her--caused Gillespie to disband the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra in the 1950s, and his career took a new turn, that of musical industrialist. With a friend, Dave Usher, he formed Dee Gee Records. Dizzy figured that he could wear all the hats: owner, producer, artist and manufacturer. "It was a wonderfully creative period," Usher said. "We recorded tunes like 'Birks Works' and 'The Champ.' We did novelty things like 'School Days,' 'Lady Be Good,' 'Oop Shoo Be Do Be' and 'Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.' " Dee Gee Records also made the first recording of a kid named "Sonny Boy" Wilson. The tune was "Danny Boy," and "Sonny Boy" later came to be known as Jackie Wilson, the '50s rhythm and blues icon. "Dizzy Gillespie was the first jazz musician to own his own label," Usher claims. He also kept a stash of cigars at Usher's Detroit pad. The last batch were Tara Nuestros Amigos #4.

Another facet of the Gillespie character was soon to develop: diplomat of jazz. In 1956, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. arranged with President Dwight Eisenhower for Diz to take a big band on a tour of the Near East, Middle East, Africa and Asia under the auspices of the State Department. This was the first time that a jazz musician had represented the United States on a cultural mission. In many of the countries the band visited, jazz was new. When Dizzy arrived in Beirut for two concerts, a very nervous promoter awaited him. The guy didn't know if he'd get an audience. But he needn't have worried. In fact, he had to add a third show.


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