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
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Gillespie would reprise his role as ambassador throughout his career, bringing jazz to new areas and audiences. The trumpet player Lester Bowie says, "Dizzy spread the music with his personality. And he worked 300 nights a year."
It was on that first tour that Diz gave Quincy Jones one of his first big breaks by making him musical director. Dizzy was always one to encourage new talent. He provided opportunities for many of us, past and present, and it's possible that some of us would not be in show business today, if it weren't for him. Mike Longo got a lift from Gillespie as a 21-year-old unknown house pianist at the Metropole, a hopping jazz club in New York in the early '60s. During an interview with International Musicians magazine, Dizzy was asked if he had heard any young musicians whom he liked, and he mentioned Longo. "I didn't even know him yet," Longo recalls. A few years afterward, while playing at an East Side club, Longo looked out into the audience and there was Dizzy. "The next day, I get a call from him, saying, 'Meet me at the union.' So, I went down to meet him, and he said, 'When I get back from Europe, I'm gonna need a piano player.' I said, 'You got one,' and that was the beginning of it. To be honest, if I had been Dizzy, after the first night I would have fired me. But Dizzy took it on himself to train me."
The bassist John Lee describes a crash course into the world of Gillespie: "Bob Cranshaw told me to call Dizzy, and he said, 'Can you go to Memphis tonight?' I said I could, and he said, 'Meet me at the airport.' And that was with no rehearsal, nothing. But Dizzy was such a tremendous teacher, he talked me through the night, and any music he didn't have, he'd walk over and tell me the changes while we were playing. It was exciting and a challenge."
My own career was similarly blessed by Gillespie. I'd always dreamed of producing records, but it was never more than a dream until the Diz made it happen. He called me up: "T., we're going to cut a tune for a movie called The Big Score. Fred Williamson's doing it. Get it together now!" After much Sturm und Drang, all that remained of my efforts on the sound track was a percussive effect--welcome to Hollywood. But the experience put me on a new career track, and I ended up producing three Dizzy Gillespie albums: New Faces (GRP); Closer to The Source (King/Atlantic), which featured Stevie Wonder on keyboards and harmonica and was nominated for a Grammy; and Endlessly (MCA), which went No. 1.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Gillespie continued to widen his audience through television appearances on the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Person to Person with Edward R. Morrow" and the "Bell Telephone Hour," to name a few. Then he turned to the world of film, where his orchestra played the sound track for Shirley Clarke's deeply moving 1963 film, The Cool World; he also wrote the music and provided a voice along with Dudley Moore for an animated film in 1964 called The Hat. All the while he piled up honors, being named best trumpeter by Jazz Hot, Downbeat and Playboy magazines' jazz polls several times.
It was in the 1970s that cigars became a serious pursuit for Dizzy. Lorraine Gillespie describes his initiation: "A fellow named Whitey used to collect clothes for recently arrived immigrants and his uncle had a cigar store. Dizzy gave him the clothes, and Whitey gave him a couple of boxes of expensive Cuban cigars," Lorraine recalls with a precious laugh. Gillespie now had a use for all the fine clothes that he'd bought around the world.
My own introduction to Gillespie involved a smoke. I saw the cigar before I ever saw Diz, and whatever it was, it was big. It was 1981, and I was an assistant stage manager for George Wein's Kool Jazz Festival. Diz was pissed as he entered the theater, but I didn't know it, and in my best tremolo I said, "Hello, Mr. Gillespie." He cut me cold. I never found out why he'd been angry, but somewhere along the way as our relationship progressed he became my friend, daddy and granddaddy all wrapped in one. Neither was I the only one who felt this way. On more than one occasion, as we'd walked through Times Square, people would yell, "Dizzy Gillespie. Is that you?" The Diz would smile and puff those cheeks, and that would be it. The folks would come running over. It was always a groove.
As Dizzy's road manager, I traveled all over Europe and Japan with him. I was with him on his second trip to Cuba in 1986, and, of course, I fell in love with cigars. John Lee turned me onto them while we were hanging out in a nightclub at the bottom of the Hotel Nacional in Havana. I saw the beautiful shape and smelled the gorgeous aroma. "Man, what is that?" I asked. "Call the waiter. He'll get you one," Lee said. The rest is sweet, smoky history.
Curiously, in his later years, I learned that the magnificent Dizzy Gillespie no longer liked making records. He found the recording environment claustrophobic. As he told me, "When I started out, the cat put a microphone in front of us and said, 'Play.' " By the 1980s, retakes and the overdub had robbed the exercise of its spontaneity. Diz wanted it to be hit and split, and he could come up with all manner of excuses for not showing up. Dizzy would say, "My lips hurt" or "I'll be there in an hour" and never show. When I sent a driver for him, he would send him away after telling the man, "Dizzy don't live here." I called more than one driver a liar before I figured out what Diz was up to. The next session he'd show up looking all angelic. He was a trip, and I loved him.
When the great John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie passed away on Jan. 6, 1993, of pancreatic cancer, those of us who knew him mourned his death on many different levels. We lost not only a great talent but a huge heart. Wynton Marsalis recalls, "Dizzy Gillespie was a genius who reinvented the way we play the trumpet." But he confessed that it wasn't as a trumpeter that Gillespie had most affected him. "He loved music, and not just his involvement in it," Marsalis adds, "and was always very encouraging to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, John Faddis. He encouraged me tremendously. And he left a good taste in the mouths of the audience. He never forgot he was playing for the people."
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