Dizzy's Divine Comedy

Dizzy Gillespie: Is there a more resonant name in jazz or music or life? Think about it. He spearheaded a generation of musicians that demanded to be taken seriously as artists. No minstrel cavorting or bowing and scraping for them. They were the young Turks, warrior musicians who played faster, harder and smarter than anyone. He might have reserved his nickname for friends and presented himself to the public as John Birks Gillespie, yet he wore his moniker as proudly as Louis Armstrong did Satchmo, Edward Ellington did Duke, Harry Crosby did Bing or Charlie Parker (who, for that matter, saw no disrespect in Charlie) did Bird. “Nicknames,” Ralph Ellison reminds us, “are a change from a given to an achieved identity.” So it was always Dizzy or Diz, and always spoken respectfully.

But then everything about Dizzy countered the myths of modern jazz: that it was a cold and difficult music, an insider’s joke, an anti-dance craze for introverts and intellectuals. Born in 1917, the year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first recorded, he was 10 when Armstrong made “Potato Head Blues” and not-yet-20 when he debuted on records with Teddy Hill, emulating Roy Eldridge. Two years later, he emerged as his own man (“Hot Mallets” with Lionel Hampton, “Pluckin’ the Bass” with Cab Calloway). By 1941, the late-night sessions at Minton’s found him on the verge of something genuinely new, stretching harmonic and rhythmic boundaries in a way that would lay the foundation for bebop, yet with an accessible virtuosity that invited broad-based admiration.

During his stay with Cab Calloway, Dizzy acquired the reputation of a cut-up, a status he happily cultivated. Dizzy is as Dizzy does: There was always a sly, wayward, boyishly disobedient side to him. He was a born stage wag, a hambone who danced, sang and joked. He wore his genius lightly. At his first session as a leader, he introduced the blindingly intricate “Bebop” and the disarmingly prankish “Salt Peanuts,” which, with its transitions and harmonic substitutions, proved no less daunting. Yet if the rest whizzed by in a blur, the spoken riff—“salt-PEA-nuts”—stayed in the mind of many who might otherwise have been intimidated.

And so it went. His big band broke new ground, redesigning the relationship between jazz and Cuban music, between chords and scales, between jazz and popular entertainment. He rendered his every innovation painless by his wit, daring, radiant skill and something more: the utter lack of pretentiousness. An artist who allows the world to address him as Dizzy (which is not a whole lot more flattering than Bugsy) must have confidence not only in himself but in his audience.

In his notes to Mosaic’s The Verve/Philips Dizzy Gillespie Small Group Sessions [Ed. note: reviewed on page 63], Donald Maggin repeats Bill Crow’s story about a 1952 gig at which Dizzy was singing “Hey Pete! Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat.” Noticing a couple of “disparaging” hipsters at ringside, “Dizzy...played three of the most brilliant, explosive, difficult choruses ever played by any trumpet player. When he finished, he leaned over to the hipsters, and said pointedly, ‘See?’ Then he went right back to singing, ‘Hey Pete, Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat’.”

Relief from the comic relief was never necessary. Gillespie knew precisely how much japery a performance could withstand. I had reason to be grateful for that because Dizzy introduced me to modern jazz. In 1965, I saw him on a triple bill with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and comedian Dick Gregory at the Village Gate. I concentrated so hard trying to understand Gerry’s music that it passed right over my head. Yet Dizzy’s unexpected (to me, anyway) humor had the effect of relaxing me, making me more receptive to the music, which included selections from a just-released album, Jambo Caribe. I bought it the next morning, pleased to discover that the crazy Limelight jacket, with its pen-and-ink sketches and doggerel, underscored the music’s homespun hipness. For all its complexity, Dizzy’s music is always welcoming.

The mid-’60s were a good time to discover Dizzy Gillespie, because he was leading one of the great small bands of his career, with James Moody, Kenny Barron, Chris White and Rudy Collins. He had just completed a contract with Philips that produced six albums, recorded in 1962 and 1963, all savory, though a few were quickly remaindered to cutout bins. Along with several Verve sessions recorded between 1954 and 1961, they are collected in Mosaic’s indispensable set. The chronological assembly of takes (including several previously unissued) lays bare the labor that went into Dizzy on the French Riviera and New Wave, at the expense of the LP sequencing—a familiar tradeoff. Recreate the magic of the former by going directly to “Chega de Saudade” on Disc V, on which beach ambience is the prelude to a definitive performance.

Something Old, Something New features the writing of Tom McIntosh, who did quite a bit of work with Gillespie and Moody in those years, as well as bold new inventions of three pieces from Dizzy’s first date—one of them, “I Can’t Get Started,” molded into a sublime medley with “’Round Midnight.” The Verve sessions include the albums The Greatest Trumpet of Them All and Have Trumpet, Will Excite!, both of which make persuasive cases for their heavy-handed titles. By this time, the dazzling Dizzy of the 1940s was tempered by a more engaging and personal timbre, a deeper appreciation of melody and blues, and a more cunning enjoyment of dissonance. Hands down, the oddest album is Dizzy Goes Hollywood. The original LP jacket showed Dizzy and a poodle on a camera crane and failed to identify the musicians; given the tunes and the brief playing times one might have expected a compromised Dizzy, perhaps with strings. Forget it: Billy Byers wrote clever bebop quintet arrangements of themes from Exodus, Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita and so forth—and if the solos are short, they are undoubtedly choice (dig Moody’s entrance on “Exodus”). If only all easy-listening music was this easy to listen to.

Originally published in October 2006

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