'Work' is the right word, for Dizzy was not a natural genius in the manner of Art Tatum or Charlie Parker. True, he was inspired, but his creations didn't have the almost divine momentum and natural authority which distinguished the solos of the other two men. Gillespie was a thinker and a teacher who changed the methods of jazz trumpet playing forever and stretched the range of big-band jazz as he took it beyond the age of swing into what became known as the bebop era.
In his early days during the Thirties it seemed unlikely to most of his colleagues that he would ever amount to much. In an era when, to the public, the trumpet was dominated by the great majesty of Louis Armstrong or by the more florid lush sound of Harry James, Gillespie played with a pinched tone and poor intonation. 'He was trying for harmonic evolution,' recalled Milt Hinton, the bassist and colleague of Dizzy's in the Cab Calloway band, 'and his tone was very thin and weak. He improved it later.'
Gillespie was a volatile young man with a sharp sense of humour and a fast resort to violence. These characteristics were intensified by the weekly beatings his father gave him as a matter of course during his childhood.
He became a natural rebel, proud of his achievements in the face of authority. 'Not bad for a South Carolina high school dropout,' he would boast to a concert audience after a particularly good solo. His humour became a legend, and often came to his rescue in difficult situations. He was criticised for clowning on stage as a guest in the forbidding and sombre setting of a concert by the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, but he pointed out that, intimidated by the surroundings, the only way he could overcome his nerves was by joking with the men in his quintet. 'I would like to introduce the members of the quintet,' he would say at the beginning of a concert. He then went through the ritual of introducing the bass player to the drummer, the pianist to the guitarist and so on.
Gillespie's father was a bricklayer who played several musical instruments. He died when Gillespie was 10, and Dizzy took up trombone and trumpet two years later. He ran a trio in his home town before taking up a scholarship at Laurinberg Institution in North Carolina. This he abandoned in 1935 before his last year and joined Frank Fairfax's band in Philadelphia where he was first nicknamed 'Dizzy'. When he was chosen to replace his idol Roy Eldridge in Teddy Hill's band at the Savoy Ballroom in New York in 1937 his rise to fame began. But it was to be a long one, fraught with incident. Hill's band broadcast from the Savoy Ballroom, and amongst the soloists was the legendary tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, with whom Gillespie was to work again when the two played for Cab Calloway.
Gillespie was already developing revolutionary musical thoughts when he joined Cab Calloway in 1939. 'I don't want you playing that Chinese music in my band,' Calloway said. Gillespie found a sympathetic student in the free-thinking bassist Milt Hinton and in their spare time the two men would climb to the rooftop of whatever theatre they were working in and play duets together, probing new ways into the harmonic structures of jazz. It was during this period that Gillespie, touring through Kansas with Calloway, first met Charlie Parker, the altoist who was later to share the high priesthood of bebop with him. Back in New York he joined the coterie of young musicians who played in after-hours jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse. His fellow experimenters included Thelonious Monk, Parker and Kenny Clarke.
On one occasion while Dizzy was with Calloway in 1941, the trumpeter Jonah Jones, Calloway's favourite, threw spitballs around the band while Cab was at the microphone. Calloway thought the offender had been Gillespie and in the row which ensued backstage Gillespie drew a knife and cut Calloway with it. Gillespie was fired of course. He subsequently worked briefly in the bands of Ella Fitzgerald, Claude Hopkins, Les Hite, Lucky Millinder, Charlie Barnet, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter. On Millinder's record of 'Little John Special' Gillespie played what is the first fully formed bebop solo on record, although he had burgeoned against the edges of swing as early as Lionel Hampton's 1939 'Hot Mallets'.
Gillespie led his own small band at the Downbeat Club in Philadelphia in 1942 before joining Earl Hines for several months. By now he was becoming a powerful influence on younger musicians. The trombonist Benny Green remembered: 'I used to listen to Diz a lot. He sat right behind me in the Hines big band. Quite a few of the men in the band couldn't understand what he was doing, though they admired his control and execution. I didn't understand too much of it, either, but I liked it. He would take me to his house and show me on the piano the alternate chords and other things he was doing. It was like going to school. It opened up a new era for me.' The Hines band included Charlie Parker, who at that point was playing tenor, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine.
Eckstine became such a crowd-puller that in June 1944 he was able to leave Hines to form his own big band, taking several of Hines's stars with him including Parker and Gillespie. The band became the main incubator for bebop, the onomatopoetically titled new music.
At this period Gillespie also became a member of the Duke Ellington band for four weeks, and co-led a band with the virtuoso bassist Oscar Pettiford at New York's Onyx Club.
In 1945 Gillespie finally formed a big band of his own, and made a series of electrifying recordings for the Musicraft label. These classic titles were acclaimed by the youthful jazz audience, but ridiculed by the establishment. Time published a piece on the band called 'How Deaf Can You Get?', and eventually it failed from a lack of bookings. Additionally, you couldn't dance to the music, and Dizzy's band had arrived just as the big- band era was closing. In October 1945 he formed a quintet with Charlie Parker on alto and made further recordings which were to become classics.
Parker and Gillespie wrought one of the biggest revolutions in jazz, and the music would never be the same again. 'If I hadn't done it someone else would,' said Dizzy, 'because no one has a monopoly on talent, and there's so much music out there that it takes some time. It's just a matter of time before there'll be another revolution like ours.'
In the summer of 1947 Gillespie put the big band together once more, and rode the bebop fad which was to last for the next two years. The rhythm section was made up of John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke, who later became the Modern Jazz Quartet. At first the new big band was a financial success, and Gillespie expanded his earlier innovations and interest in Latin rhythms, significantly by including the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo in the group and using revolutionary young composers like Curtis Fuller, Tadd Dameron and Lewis.
In January 1948 the full band sailed for Europe. The crossing was bad and the Drottningholm arrived in Gothenburg 26 hours late with a group of very sick musicians on board. The tour of Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and France was a roaring success.
The bop fad petered out in 1949, Gillespie signed for Capitol and the big band recorded a series of empty novelty pieces, impelled no doubt by Capitol's 'commercial' policy and Gillespie's new-found belief that people should be able to dance to his music.
At the end of the decade Gillespie ticked off another first by recording jazz trumpet solos with string accompaniment. His first attempt, an album of Cole Porter tunes, was stymied when the executors of Porter's estate objected to such radical treatment of the composer's melodies. But a second set, with the strings scored by Johnny Richards, became a best-seller.
As the commercial side of the bebop era began to wane, Gillespie toured as a featured soloist with the Stan Kenton band in 1950 and formed his own record company, which was not a success, the following year.
It was in 1953 that someone accidentally sat on Gillespie's trumpet where he had left it backstage at a concert. The bell was tilted upward at an angle of 45 degrees. Gillespie played it and discovered that it improved the sound distribution, and ever after had trumpets built for him with this upward- tilted angle incorporated. The misshapen horn became his trade mark.
In 1956, after several successful years leading a quintet and perennially touring with Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic, Gillespie reformed the big band and, with government sponsorship, toured Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia. He undertook a similar tour in South America, recording in Argentina with a local tango band, but when funding expired, the big band did too.
Gillespie always paced himself, and after his incandescent soloing of the Forties turned later to a more measured manner of playing which preserved his playing ability into his later years. Even then his cheeks expanded like balloons when he played, but this was more visually spectacular than damaging to the player. Although middle-age and his adherence to the B'hai faith made him a calmer person, he continued to play with great taste and invention.
His life remained filled with incident. In 1964 he decided to run for the office of President of the United States and the write-in vote almost got him on to the California ballot. Most interestingly he planned, if elected, to make his fellow trumpeter Miles Davis head of the CIA. Encouraged by his success, he decided to try again in 1972 but realised that the B'hai faith forbade him to run for political office.
He continued to tour for the rest of his life and reformed the big band whenever finance permitted. The version he brought to Europe in 1990 had an international team of younger musicians, including the extrovert Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, within its ranks.
When not on tour Gillespie led a sedate home life in his later years. 'After breakfast I go down to the basement to see if I have any ideas about composition. I have a piano down there, and an electric Yamaha, a synthesiser, a drum-machine and a cute little thing that plays back exactly anything that I play into it. Mmm hmm, I gotta whole lotta basement . . . So I play down there till about one o'clock.'
He published his rather unfocused autobiography Dizzy - To Be Or Not To Bop in 1982. Still lauded everywhere as one of the great pioneers of jazz, the illness which overtook him a year ago prevented him from taking his seat at a concert given in his honour by top American jazz musicians in New York in June.
'Well, I tell you. I pick up the paper every morning, and I scan the obituary column. And if my name's not listed there, I go on about my business. If I don't see no picture of me, I don't worry. Otherwise, I do retire every night - to bed.'
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