The genre of memoirs by jazz musicians is a rich one, filled with tales of trials and tribulations as well as success stories. To make a memoir work, the author has to not only recall events and feelings from the past correctly, but also manage to project the right tone and voice, with genuine rather than false humility. On top of that, we readers would like to learn something about the author that we didn’t know before, which presents another challenge. Every memoir here except (spoiler alert!) Charles Mingus’ required an assist from a writer or editor, who deserves credit for helping to bring the project home.
The story of how Dizzy Gillespie transitioned from being a sideman in various big bands to leading his own groups, which created a new form of jazz, is fascinating. There will never be a memoir from Charlie Parker, so Gillespie’s story serves as a proxy for Bird’s incendiary path through the jazz world. This entertaining and illuminating memoir is as much an oral history because a large portion of the book contains testimony from Dizzy’s peers of that time, including John Lewis, Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge, and many more. Like two books in one.