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Dizzy-Gillespie-plays-in-the-ocean1He was crazy, unpredictable, brash, extrovert, stylish, as well as a trumpet virtuoso, which all helped to make Dizzy Gillespie an icon of jazz and an inspiration to many younger trumpeters. When Dizzy’s bop first came along someone coined the phrase, “be hip, be sharp, be bop!” It says a lot about the dizzy heights to which he aspired and more importantly attained. He mau have been the ‘Clown Prince of Jazz’, but without him jazz would certainly have been a lot less interesting.

John Birks Gillespie was born in South Carolina, the youngest of nine children; his father was a bricklayer who struggled to cope financially, like many poor Black families in the South. By all accounts young John suffered at the hands of his father on numerous occasions; beatings were a fact of his early life. While his father’s harsh treatment stayed with him for the rest of his life so did the fact that he was a keen musician who played in a part time band and stored many of the band’s instruments at his home. By the time John was ten years old, the time when his father died, John had had a go on most all of them. Fortunately a teacher at school continued to encourage his interest and he took up the cornet.

Dizzy_Gillespie_seated_1955In 1932 John went to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina because they needed a trumpet player for their band and he was, at fifteen, already a talented player. While he was at the school he also learned the piano and got to grips with harmony and the structure of music. His cousin, a trombone player, was also at the school and the two teenagers encouraged each other’s musical exploration. In 1935 the Gillespie family moved to Philadelphia preventing him from graduating; from as soon as he het there he was playing with bands in the cities Southside clubs.

Gillespie soon found himself in the Frankie Fairfax band, Phillies’ finest at the time. Among the other musicians in the band was pianist Bill Doggett, it was both him and trumpeter Charlie Shavers that helped make the band popular; both also helped John. Doggett worked with him on mastering arranging, while Shavers taught him many of the solos made famous by Roy Eldridge. While he was intent on learning he was also keen on playing the fool and having a good time; it was while he was with the Fairfax band that he became Dizzy.

1559514_667541483297684_1896640966_oHe was about as crazy as a fox.” – A fellow musician from his big band days

After two years in Philadelphia, Dizzy headed East to New York, increasingly the jazz capital of America, the place where things could happen. He had been promised a job with Lucky Millender’s band but at the eleventh hour it fell through. Dizzy eventually secured a place in Teddy Hill’s band in late April 1937, the following month he was in the studio recording half a dozen sides.

No sooner had they finished than the band headed across the Atlantic to tour England and France for several months. For Dizzy the trip was an eye opener; for musicians, jazz fans and audiences throughout Britain it was a treat to see a real American big band. Dizzy was obviously still learning his craft, which is perhaps why he did not record with French jazz legend Django Reinhardt, along with many others from the Hill band in July. Then again it might have been, as others have suggested, that Dizzy was not the most popular band member on account of him charging his band mates high interest in a money-lending racket.

H7252_01Back in America Dizzy worked with Alberto Socarras’ Orchestra and Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans. After another spell with the Teddy Hill band Dizzy hit the relative big time in August 1939; he landed a job with Cab Calloway’s band. Around the same time he did a session with Lionel Hampton, among those he worked with were Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Charlie Christian, the brilliant guitarist, as well as Calloway’s bassist Milt Hinton. ‘Hot Mallets’ from this session is the first time Dizzy can be heard, prominently, on a record. Callaway, like every big band leader, was keen to keep his boys on the road and it was while they were touring in Kansas City in 1940 that Dizzy met and jammed with Charlie Parker for the first time.

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Back in New York, Dizzy spent much of his free time in 1941, when not working with Calloway, jamming with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Parker. Dizzy would play at Minton’s on a regular basis, developing his style and honing his playing. Dizzy’s love of a good time did nothing to endear him to Cab Callaway, who didn’t take kindly to his trumpeter’s antics. The bandleader angered Dizzy by hiring another trumpeter, named Jonah Jones, who then got most of the featured solos.

One day in the autumn of 1941 Jones flicked a paper ‘spitball’ across the bandstand hitting Cab Calloway in the process. Without a thought he turned on the usual suspect; Dizzy, for once innocent, drew a knife on his boss, which cut him; Dizzy was fired instantly. From then on Gillespie became something of a musical mercenary working with artists that included Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Earl Hines, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington to name just a few.

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(I was) looking for a way to emphasize the more beautiful notes in swing. When you hum it, you just naturally say ‘bebop, be-de-bop.’ ” – Dizzy Gillespie 1946

Dizzy, finally, played with Lucky Millinder’s outfit and it was with them in July 1942 that he recorded, ‘Little John Special’, his first real bop solo, although this was within the context of a big band in full swing. Gillespie also worked with his own group, but after meeting Billy Eckstine, while they were both working with Earl Hines, Gillespie joined the singer’s new band in 1944 as musical director. Dizzy’s first session with his new boss was in December; among the others in the band were tenor saxophonists, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, drummer Art Blakey, with Tadd Dameron as their arranger. On this first session a very young and timid girl singer sang several songs. The problem with these sessions were that they were badly engineered and then the recordings were badly pressed; Dizzy and many others soon left.

imagesIn 1945 Dizzy worked with his own group, as well as the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra; he also did some sessions with Sarah Vaughan, that same timid singer, including a version of ‘Lover Man’, featuring Charlie Parker, on which Sarah shines. In November he recorded, for the first time, with Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s ReBoppers at a studio on New York’s Broadway. Early in 1946 he appeared at Jazz at the Philharmonic and recorded a number of sessions with various small groups that he led.

Having tried unsuccessfully in 1945 to get a big band off the ground Dizzy succeeded in the late spring of 1946 taking it on the road to venues that included Washington’s Spotlight Lounge. The orchestra featured among its stars, Sonny Stitt, on alto sax, Thelonious Monk on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums; Dizzy himself handled the vocals. By 1947 Dizzy was dabbling with Afro-Cuban jazz and introduced conga player, Chano Pozo and Lorenzo Salan a bongo player into the orchestra’s line-up. Through the band in 1947 went Ray Brown on bass, Milt Jackson on vibes and John Lewis on piano, and Kenny Clarke who went on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet.

If it doesn’t hurt your ears it isn’t dissonance. But then, I’m a little deaf myself.” – Dizzy Gillespie 1948

199706_051By 1950 the difficulties, both financial and managerial, of keeping a big band together began to take its toll and Dizzy gave up his own orchestra, joining Stan Kenton for a short while as featured soloist. He also played and recorded in small group settings that included the Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker Quintet which also featured, Thelonious Monk, bassist, Curly Russell and Buddy Rich on drums.

For the most part during the early 1950s the small group setting was Dizzy’s chosen recording platform. The people he played with during this period, either in his own groups or in theirs or other people’s, reads like the who’s who of jazz. Besides Parker, Davis and Monk there was John Coltrane, Art Blakey, J.J. Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Bud Powell, Don Byas, Charles Mingus, Oscar Peterson, Illinois Jacquet and Stan Getz. Having worked in France in 1948, and been a big hit, he went back several times during the first three years of the decade where his work continued to be well received.

In 1954 he briefly resurrected his Orchestra and among the trumpet players was just turned twenty-one Quincy Jones. By this time Dizzy was playing his now famous bent trumpet. The year before someone had accidentally fallen on his trumpet while it was sitting on a stand. It bent the bell so it was pointing upwards in a 45-degree angle. Gillespie liked the sound, so that’s they way his trumpets have been ever since. At least that’s the official story; it has been raised that Dizzy may have seen an English trumpeter with a bent horn in 1937 when he toured with the Teddy Hill Orchestra.

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Dizzy’s Orchestra was again a short-lived affair and he was once again playing with what seemed liked everybody in the jazz world. In 1956 he put the orchestra back together, with Quincy Jones as its musical arranger, and they toured in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America sponsored by the US State Department. In the autumn of ’56 he recorded with his old trumpet hero, Roy Eldridge for the Verve label. The big band stayed together for two years but after government funding ran out he closed it down to return to the small group format.

The style of our music is based on the way that he (Charlie Parker) played. I had something to do with the harmony and the rhythmic sense. Monk created the harmony and {drummer} Kenny Clarke created the rhythm to go with it. We developed all of that to go with the music.“– Dizzy Gillespie

From the 1960s onwards Dizzy continued to perform with his Sextet and Quintet as well as guesting on many other projects. In 1971-2 he appeared with the Giants of Jazz, featuring, Kai Winding, the trombonist, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey. He also appeared with Charles Mingus’ Orchestra, Billy Eckstine, Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter and numerous others. However his days as a cutting edge player had passed and he had settled into a mellower role, although he still loved to joke and play pranks. He even featured on the cruise ships where his humour went over well and his position, as an elder statesman of jazz was secure.

Dizzy died in January 1993 from cancer having helped to change the face of jazz trumpet playing and the face of jazz.

Words: Richard Havers

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Jivin' In Be-Bop (1946)
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