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.
Speaking of great lineups. Diz and Bird form the front line, with Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach behind them. It’s amusing to hear Parker refer to Gillespie as “my worthy constituent”—but from that moment on it’s Gillespie who amuses. He screams, shouts, and we can’t see whatever else he does throughout Parker’s long solo. Dizzy’s up next, going through his acrobatic paces and throwing in lots of surprises in his note bends, a jumping lyrical phrase (adapted from the song’s bridge), and a thumping final dialogue with Max Roach. He then starts cutting up again during Powell’s solo, as if the pianist were the straight man feeding him setups. Few are the recordings where you get the full spectrum of Gillespie’s artistry and his onstage clown persona—maybe that’s why this legendary Toronto performance is still tagged by many as “the greatest jazz concert ever.”
Listen to a Spotify playlist including most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10: