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Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie

World War II and a long recording ban conspired to make it seem that a revolution brought forth bebop overnight. Alyn Shipton’s biography of one of the two geniuses who nurtured the idiom makes it clear that bop, like all substantial artistic movements, was part of a continuum. Shipton emphasizes that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at their best scaled heights other jazz musicians had never imagined. He argues that Gillespie, the young trumpeter from South Carolina, played the major theoretical and organizational role in bop’s development.

For all of Parker’s inspired brilliance, he led by example, not by explanation. His lessons were embedded in his saxophone solos. Like Gillespie’s, his playing changed the way musicians, and then listeners, thought about music. Gillespie did even more. Shipton illuminates a facet of Gillespie that was at least as important as his playing, arranging, and band-leading: the trumpeter was the music’s greatest theoretician and teacher. Beginning when he was a very young jazz player, he conducted his deep investigation into the possibilities of harmony with virtually no instruction or example, and his study never stopped. Shipton reports that Gillespie told Jon Faddis that in his early days, “Nobody showed me shit.” Yet, whatever he discovered about the mysteries and complexities of chords and their uses, he shared unstintingly with other musicians all of his life. Countless musicians tell stories of Gillespie taking them to the piano to show the inner workings of chords. If he had not been a natural and compulsive teacher, this difficult music would have developed more slowly and perhaps differently.

The book seems to bring together all confirmed, and some speculative, facts about Gillespie’s life. Shipton relates them neatly, if with a sense of distance. He offers plenty of anecdotes. Some are retold. Some are new by way of interviews and original research. He finds it necessary to include backhanded slaps at other musicians, assuming attitudes by Gillespie that he is on record as not having. Gillespie was an extravagant admirer of Buddy Rich’s drumming and frequently sat in with Rich’s big band. He told me on a 1968 radio program that, contrary to conventional wisdom, he was delighted that Rich was on the 1950 Bloomdido date with him, Parker, and Thelonious Monk. “Man, didn’t he play?” Dizzy said. Shipton devotes two paragraphs to Rich’s alleged unsuitability. He also infers that Chet Baker’s early popularity was a “threat” to Dizzy. Gillespie arranged for Baker’s comeback gig at the Half Note in New York in 1973, an interesting response to a threatening figure.

As for the music, Shipton describes it: The earliest recordings with Teddy Hill and Cab Calloway, the first hints of bop, the 1943 hotel room collaborations with Parker, Gillespie’s romance with Afro-Cuban music, his big bands and small groups into the early 1990s. Description, however, can go only so far. The few instances of actual analysis, as in an assessment of the “Blues” section of Lalo Schifrin’s “Gillespiana” suite, leave the reader wanting more. The book has no transcribed musical examples. Its biggest disappointment, however, is the lack of a discography. It is a dereliction by the author and the publisher to whet the reader’s desire to hear the music, then not tell him where to find it. Most of Gillespie’s music is on compact discs; Shipton and Oxford could have listed them in a few pages. The book is well indexed and illustrated. Pictures match the chronology of the text, an aid to smooth reading.

If Gillespie’s humanity in all of its positive and negative aspects does not suffuse the pages, Shipton at least examines the components of the man’s complicated personality, and his public and private behavior. The reader gets a fair idea of Gillespie’s lovability and of the mean streak that all but evaporated in his last years, but he does not finish the book knowing the man. As in reading most jazz biographies, one longs for the depth and insight given by biographers like Michael Holroyd (Shaw), Wolfgang Hildesheimer (Mozart), and Alexander Wheelock Thayer (Beethoven). This biography has valuable information and interesting, sometimes irritating, opinions. It is a step on the way to a major biography of a major figure.

Originally Published