Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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GILLESPIE, Dizzy

(b John Birks Gillespie, 21 October 1917, Cheraw SC; d 6 January 1993, Englewood NJ) Trumpet, composer, leader, singer: with Charlie Parker one of the most important innovators of modern jazz; one of the half-dozen most influential musicians in the history of jazz (see Bop). His father was an amateur musician; he began on trombone at 14, trumpet at 15, studied harmony and theory; reputation for pranks and zany humour led to his nickname, but he was a hard worker, understanding the importance of technique. Influenced by Roy Eldridge, followed him into the Teddy Hill band '37 including a tour of Europe; recorded with Lionel Hampton '39, featured soloist with Cab Calloway '39-41, already with harmonic/rhythmic innovations ('Pickin' The Cabbage' '40); he was fired by Cab in a famous spitball incident (not guilty; years later Jonah Jones confessed). Worked for Benny Carter (first played 'Night In Tunisia' '42), Lucky Millinder ('Little John Special' '42 including trumpet riff which became 'Salt Peanuts'), Earl Hines; subbed four weeks in Duke Ellington band; wrote 'Woody'n'You' '44 for Coleman Hawkins record date. Recorded with Charlie Parker '45 on Guild, Musicraft, Savoy; music director for the Billy Eckstine band '44, formed own big band '45, again '46-9; toured Scandinavia '48. The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1947-49, a two-CD set on Bluebird, compiled the big band and other tracks; compositions including 'Cubana Be, Cubana Bop' co-written with George Russell and Chano Pozo; 'Manteca' with Pozo and Gil Fuller, both '47. Also 'Birks Works', 'Con Alma', 'Kush', many more; also famous for standard 'Tin Tin Deo' written by Pozo and Fuller. Dizzy wrote that 'Manteca' '47 was probably his best-selling record, but Pop Memories lists 'Salt Peanuts' (on Guild '45 with Parker) as a pop hit in the novelty category. Tadd Dameron's ballad 'If You Could See Me Now' is from a Dizzy solo: even more than most jazzmen he composed every time he played. He recorded with strings arranged by Johnny Richards '50, but the results were uninspired: there were few arrangers who knew what to do with strings, let alone with Dizzy or Bird. Dizzy formed his own DeeGee label in Detroit and went broke; a two-LP Savoy set DeeGee Days collected '51-2 tracks including an early appearance by John Coltrane, vocals with Joe 'Bebop' Carroll (b 25 Nov. '19, Philadelphia; d 1 Feb. '81, Brooklyn; with Woody Herman '60s).

Dizzy played the trumpet better perhaps than anyone else ever had 1945-50, but not even he could maintain that level indefinitely; by '50 the excellent Eckstine and Gillespie big bands had failed and jazz was no longer anywhere near the centre of American music: the DeeGee tracks hold up better than the pop music of the period, but they were largely ignored at the time and Dizzy's playing on them is almost perfunctory, as though he knew he had gone as far as the music biz would allow him to go: by the early '50s bop was seen as a novelty music in the wider marketplace and the revolution was confined to a ghetto. Singing, clowning and showmanship kept him personally popular, always with wit and a hint of the put-on; his first vocal on record was 'Oop-Pop-A-Da' '47, then 'Salt Peanuts', 'Swing Low Sweet Cadillac', 'Umbrella Man', 'In The Land Of Ooo Blah Dee', etc. His famous upturned trumpet resulted from an accident '53; he liked the better sound dispersal and played a custom-made bent horn from then on. He went to Europe '52-3 with a combo, live tracks later on Disques Vogue; Jazz At Massey Hall '53 is a famous quintet concert recorded in Toronto (see Charles Mingus). A big band organized by Quincy Jones '56-8 toured Europe and Latin America '56 for US State Dept, popular around the world and an excellent advertisement for USA, but money was cut off partly because of complaints about using taxpayers' money to support a 'jazz band'. (It played Live in Chester PA '57, now on a Jazz Unlimited CD, with Lee Morgan, Melba Liston, Benny Golson etc, and a month later at the Newport Jazz Festival; Birks Works: The Verve Big Band Sessions on a Verve two-CD set collected the studio recordings.) Influenced by Latin music; polyrhythms were important in bop, Pozo in the big band late '40s had a profound effect (see Cubop) and the Latin link was maintained: made Latin-jazz LP '54 on Norgran/Verve, recorded '56 in Argentina with tango band; in Cuba '77 with Arturo Sandoval, others; with Machito on Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods '75, with Sandoval on To A Finland Station' 82, both now on Fantasy/OJC; sat in with Sandoval at Ronnie Scott's '85.

Dizzy played at the White House for four Presidents; ran for President '63 (a write-in vote almost got him on the California ballot). One Night In Washington '55 at Club Kavakos on Elektra including 'Afro Suite' with 'Manteca'. Many LPs with small groups, big bands on Norman Granz's Verve label '53-61, with Stan Getz, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, Oscar Peterson et al. The New Continent '62 on Limelight was a big-band concept set conducted by Benny Carter; a quintet LP '62 on Philips with Charlie Ventura and Lalo Schifrin was the first studio bossa nova album made in the USA. Dizzy Gillespie And The Double Six was made in Paris '63 with Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Pierre Michelot, the vocal group dubbed later. Reunion Big Band '68 on Verve/MPS was recorded live at Berlin Philharmonic Hall, with arrangements by Fuller. Other albums on Solid State, Gateway, Perception etc followed by a new era with Granz on Pablo, some reissues now on Fantasy/OJC, some listed under Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge etc. There are far too many Gillespie albums to list them all, proof of enduring popularity with the general public as well as jazz fans; America celebrated his 70th birthday and he once again fronted a big band on tour; one of the last albums was Dizzy Gillespie And The United Nation Orchestra live in London on Enja, with Sandoval, Airto, Flora Purim, Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, James Moody etc; Bird Songs '92 on Telarc was a tribute with a great lineup surrounding the master. Interviewed not long before he died for Jean Bach's wonderful film A Great Day In Harlem Dizzy was his slyly humorous self, like a Buddha waiting for the rest of us to get the joke. To Be Or Not To Bop '79 with Al Fraser is one of the best music autobiographies, full of anecdotes and interviews.