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.
“Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” was the title track of what turned out to be Gillespie’s biggest-selling album in years. Perhaps that was because it represented yet another attempt to stay current: Diz and the band work soul-jazz grooves all through the album (recorded live in Los Angeles). “Swing Low,” however, merged that currency with the same authentic folk vibe that had characterized “Cubana Be”/“Cubana Bop” 20 years before. This time Gillespie lets his humor run rampant in the Afro-Cuban chants, which include calls of “Ecaroh!” (the title of a composition by his friend Horace Silver, and also “Horace” backwards) and “Yo Mamo!” (“And yo papa too,” saxophonist James Moody ad libs.) Then comes four minutes of what Wilson Pickett aptly described as “cornbread music”—played with a verve that holds its own against the Wicked Pickett.
Listen to a Spotify playlist including most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10: