He loved the nickname “Dizzy,” and he did everything he could to live up to it. The hyperactive stage antics, the puffed cheeks, the distinctive bent trumpet—it all fed into his persona as a showman. Yet John Birks Gillespie was anything but dizzy. He was the brain trust of the bebop revolution: Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were his creative equals (and may have been the only ones), but it was Gillespie who intellectualized the music, codified it, and became its emissary to the world.
It wasn’t his only direction. Gillespie is equally important in the birth of Latin jazz, and he did his best to push forward from there and to keep a creative edge right up to his passing in 1993. Here are 10 artifacts from that journey.
1. Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra: “Hot Mallets” (1939-1940; Chronological Classics, 1991 [originally recorded September 11, 1939])
Here is Gillespie in all his swing-era glory, a master of the music well before he reinvented it. The three other tunes on this September 1939 session mostly found Gillespie playing parts in the arrangements, but here he lets loose in a tradeoff with tenor saxophonist Chu Berry. Gillespie first, ripping out 16 bars that let us know we’ve got a scarily gifted trumpeter on our hands. Berry takes the bridge, then Diz takes us giddily home. We can hear the influence of Roy Eldridge, the trumpeter Gillespie once called “the Messiah of our generation,” but this is something else again. It augurs the bebop revolution in more than just the horn man’s virtuosity, too: “Hot Mallets” is based on the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm,” presenting what would become a major framework for the new music.
Listen to a Spotify playlist including most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10: