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JazzTimes 10: Essential Dizzy Gillespie Recordings

Must-hear music by a bebop and Latin-jazz visionary

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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.

5. Dizzy Gillespie Octet: “Birks’ Works” (John Coltrane, American Broadcast Collection 1951 - 1963; Hi Hat, 2018 [originally recorded March 17, 1951])

5. Dizzy Gillespie Octet: “Birks’ Works” (John Coltrane, <i>American Broadcast Collection 1951 - 1963</i>; Hi Hat, 2018 [originally recorded March 17, 1951])

Gillespie’s legacy lies not only in his playing and compositions but also in his ability to find and cultivate talented musicians to carry the music forward. The eight-piece band that broadcast from Birdland on Saturday night, March 17, 1951, helped introduce the world to 24-year-old John Coltrane (doubling on alto and tenor saxes, though it’s the tenor on which he plays a sinuous solo). Trane, however, is only one of the stars on “Birks’ Works.” Bebop trombone architect J.J. Johnson is also in the band and takes a beautiful solo turn. Meanwhile, in the rhythm section stood vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, and bassist Percy Heath—three fourths of what would soon become the Modern Jazz Quartet. It can’t be all about the sidemen, though: Gillespie separates Coltrane and Johnson’s solos with a typically brilliant, quicksilver one of his own.

Learn more about The Complete RCA Victor Recordings at Amazon.

Listen to a Spotify playlist including most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10:


Read Gary Giddins’ 2006 Cadenza column on Dizzy Gillespie.

Dizzy Gillespie: 1982 NEA Jazz Master

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.