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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.

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