Remembering Dizzy

Of the jazz Web sites I visit, the most far-ranging—and therefore, most often surprising—is Jerry Jazz Musician at Jerryjazz.com. The publisher, editor, interviewer and selector of the relevant music is Joe Maita, based in Portland, Ore. He tells me the title comes from a Woody Allen stand-up routine in the early ’60s: “When riding the subway to his clarinet lessons, Woody described himself as being dressed ‘Jerry Jazz Musician style.’”

The Web site encompasses what could be called American civilization with jazz as the centerpiece—ranging from such guests as Gary Giddins to Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s closest associate. There is also a discussion on the state of jazz, including its economics, with Joshua Redman, Bruce Lundvall and Ben Ratliff.

Recently, Maita asked me to join James Moody in a session, “Remembering Dizzy Gillespie.” Moody knew Dizzy much longer and better than I did, having been in his big band and quintet. Dizzy once said of the multireedist and vocalist: “Playing with James Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself.” And both were joyously witty, on and off the stand.

I knew Dizzy for more than 40 years, talked with him often and was always lifted up not only by his music but also by his warmth and generosity. One of my biggest kicks in the jazz life was when, after I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, I was waiting outside a rehearsal room where he was due to work with an all-star big band for a concert in his honor. Dizzy, coming down the corridor with a friend, saw me, gave me a big hug and said to his friend, “It’s like seeing an old broad after a long time.”

I’ve never been referred to that way before or since, but I glowed for quite a while.

During my conversation with Moody, I remembered what Hank Jones said at the funeral service for Dizzy: “He showed me chord inversions I hadn’t even thought of.” “Dizzy was a teacher,” Moody said. “If he played something, and you asked him what it was, he would bring you to the piano and explain it. He felt if a player knows the piano, then he will know what the trombones are doing, what the trumpets are doing, what the saxophones are doing, because every instrument is right there in the piano. Many of the great musicians know something about the piano because, as Diz said, that is where everything is.” Charles Mingus felt the same way, and could play piano with his customary distinctiveness.

Moody talked about how fair-minded Dizzy was, but also how keenly self-protective he had to be in the music business. Said Moody: “I will never forget the time he told me, ‘Moody, you are a wonderful person, and I would trust you anywhere. But I have a little bit of an orphan in my heart.’ I knew what he meant by that. He wouldn’t take any ‘stuff ’ from anyone. He would try to grab them before they grabbed him, because he was taken advantage of in his work. Many of the pieces that Dizzy wrote have someone else’s name on it with his.”

Back in the 1950s, I was walking down Broadway in New York, and Dizzy, walking toward me, was smiling broadly. “I’ve just come from seeing Billy Shaw,” he said. (Shaw was a major booker of jazz musicians). “I’d been meaning to say this to him for a long time,” Dizzy said with satisfaction. “‘Billy,’ I told him, ‘you got to remember that I don’t work for you. You work for me!” Laughing, Dizzy moved on.

A lot of musicians were taken advantage of. Moody said, “I believe Oliver Nelson sold ‘Stolen Moments’ for less than one hundred dollars, and it was his most famous composition. Regarding Dizzy, I can only imagine how much money he would have made if he had been Caucasian. I am not prejudiced—hell, my wife has blonde hair and green eyes. But if he were Caucasian, he would have made some serious money.”

As we were talking about how Dizzy’s very presence, before he played a note, made people feel good, Moody said: “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about Diz. I have pictures of him plastered all over my house. He touched me very deeply. I am now 79 years old, and I often will be doing something when I will stop and say to myself, ‘Ahh, that’s what he meant! I guess as long as I live, I will be saying that to myself because that is how deep the man touched me.”

A member of the serene Baha’i faith, Dizzy once told me that his religion taught him “eventually, mankind will become unified, when there is world government and everybody belongs to it, and you don’t need a passport. There’ll be an international language taught in all schools. This should take another thousand or 2,000 years. But on the way, we get little pinches of unification. Like the United Nations.”

“And jazz?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “That really is a pinch of unification. It really makes me feel good to belong to jazz, to that part of society.”

What a gift it was to know Dizzy.

Originally published in September 2004

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