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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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.
In 1935, the Gillespies moved to Philadelphia, where the small-town Southern boy encountered a new scene. Unworldly, he showed up for his first gig with his trumpet in a paper bag (he had never bought a case), which the other musicians thought was too funny. But what Gillespie lacked in sophistication, he made up for in raw talent and dedication. He worked out his ideas on the piano, a technique that helped him to "visualize" the music. He soon found that it helped him to freely substitute chords and harmonies within the original melody. "All the various combinations of notes and chords are right there in front of you," he later reflected about the piano, "like on no other single instrument." The technique also helped him discover how different sounds led naturally, sometimes surprisingly, into others. "I'd take them and play them on my horn, and used to surprise people with new combinations. When I played the trumpet, they couldn't tell if I was coming by land or sea."
Gillespie's habit of getting up and dancing to the music also did nothing to diminish his growing reputation as an eccentric. One day, while Dizzy was fooling around on the piano during a rehearsal, a trumpet player named Fats Palmer looked at his empty trumpet chair and said, "Where's that dizzy cat?" The band cracked up, and the name stuck.
All the same, Palmer harbored an abiding respect for the Diz, who, he said, could take a tune and "run over it like a rabbit running over a hill."
Dizzy soon left for New York in pursuit of the big time, with his characteristic lack of caution: "Nothing seemed too risky to me, since I was already known to be crazy." There he started joining in jam sessions, an important element in the evolution of jazz. He'd play a slew of clubs during the course of a single night--places like George's, the Yeah Man, Smalls and after-hours clubs like Monroe's Uptown House. He'd sit in with the Savoy Sultans, Chick Webb and Claude Hopkins. He was coming along fast.
In 1937, he got his big break. Teddy Hill, leader of a popular big band, used Dizzy on a recording session and then invited him to tour Europe. That Gillespie would be filling the seat of his idol, Roy Eldridge, gave the gig added prestige. Diz leapt at the chance. The tour was a success, and when he got back he had a little cash, a fine wardrobe and no job. The musicians' union in New York tore up his working papers, citing a rule that protected musicians' jobs from "foreigners," which, being from Philadelphia, Dizzy was considered to be. The rising star was obliged to cool his heels for a three-month waiting period.
As happened so often in Gillespie's career, misfortune led to happy coincidence. Reduced to sneaking out of town on gigs, he met his future wife, Lorraine, during a quick trip to Washington, D.C., where she was dancing in a chorus line that toured the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. The company would start at the Apollo Theater in New York, go to the Standard or the Earle in Philly, move to Baltimore and then on to the Howard in D.C., always working three to five shows a day. It was a schedule that resulted in the TOBA circuit being dubbed "Tough On Black Artists." It was also, however, the mecca of black showbiz.
Lorraine would later reveal that the Diz didn't cut such a dashing figure at the time. Any cigars Dizzy smoked in the early years must have been gifts from friends, "because when I met him he didn't have enough money to smoke a cigarette," she recalls. "It was much later that he began smoking those expensive Cubans."
Nevertheless, the two fell in love and, in 1940, were married. Gillespie would later credit Lorraine's calming influence with keeping him from distractions like drugs, which would cut down so many of his contemporaries in the prime of their careers.
In 1937, Dizzy met another person who would help shape his life: the Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza. They dug each other immediately. Bauza became a father figure to Gillespie and, because he exposed him to Afro-Cuban music, was a profound influence on his musical philosophy. Bauza would also give the young man a tremendous career boost. After serving his three months in exile, the Diz was back with Teddy Hill. Hill's was one of the house bands at Harlem's premier jazz showcase of the era, the Savoy Ballroom. Work was steady until 1939, when Teddy's band was playing in the Savoy Ballroom Pavillion at the New York World's Fair. The band members were doing a lot of sets, and considered themselves seriously underpaid. They complained to the union and got fired. Dizzy was out of work, but not for long, as Mario Bauza came to the rescue.
Cab Calloway was "The Man" in 1939. His band was booked three years in advance and traveled in private railroad cars and on chartered buses. Bauza, who was playing with Calloway at the time, dug Dizzy so much that one night he gave up his trumpet chair so that his protégé could sit in and Cab could hear what was happening. Cab added Dizzy to his band immediately, and their relationship was solid until the legendary "Spit Ball Incident of 1941."
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.
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.
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