Is it possible to be too well known? Not a question that bothers too many jazzmen or their reputations, but John Burks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie was no ordinary jazz musician. One of the founding fathers of bebop, he avoided the traps which many of his contemporaries fell into, and became the presentable face of a new and radical music. He lived to a ripe old- age and was venerated as an all time great, but his success meant that it was often forgotten just how revolutionary he had been.
Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on the 21st October 1917. Although his father was an amateur musician he died when Dizzy was 10, and so the youngster was mainly self taught. He had a natural talent and after a short period on the trombone he took up the trumpet at the age of 14. When he was 18, after 2 years at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina he moved to Philadelphia, picking up his first gigs working with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra. He learned quickly and had soon developed a style influenced by his idol Roy Eldridge, then at the age of 20 he replaced Eldridge in Teddy Hill’s Big Band. From there he was a member and one of the main instrumental stars of Cab Calloway’s band between 1939 and 1941.
It was with Calloway that Dizzy first started working out the fundamentals of his bebop style. The fledgling movement found its home at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, a club where the manager was Dizzy’s former boss Teddy Hill. Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk and several others formed the basic line-up of the jam sessions. The music which they formulated would within a couple of years rock the music world, but with a recording ban in place in the US between 1942 & 1944 this stylistic leap remained largely under wraps until it was already fully formed. Gillespie at this time continued working with established bands and could be found playing with Benny Carter, Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines, before he joined Billy Eckstine’s legendary big band which included most of bebop’s young talent.
By the end of 1944 Gillespie was a rising star, and bebop was about to move out of the clubs and on to record. The first group into the limelight was the All Star Quintet formed by Dizzy in May 1945 alongside Parker, pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell and Sid Catlett on drums. Tracks they recorded such as ‘Salt Peanuts’ and ‘Hot House’ immediately became standards and by the end of the year with an amended line up - Milt Jackson added on vibes, Ray Brown on bass and Stan Levy on drums - the group took bebop to an initially bemused LA. In 1946 his success allowed him to reform a big band that he had experimented with the previous year and for the rest of the decade he alternated between both a large orchestra and a small group.
History has sometimes judged Gillespie as secondary to Parker’s whirlwind genius, but he was every bit - if not more important to bebop’s success. He had an unquenchable thirst for creativity, and almost single handedly developed a style for his instrument which was highly skilled and original. Alongside Parker and others he then successfully integrated the style into a small group format. His love of the bigger format also allowed the fledgling movement an outlet for playing that would otherwise have been unavailable. Gillespie – unlike Parker - was also a social creature, and helped create a bebop community that brought through the next generation of musicians. Perhaps because of his great virtuosity he was unafraid of competitors and through the years nurtured such great trumpeters as Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan. If this wasn’t enough he was also a great composer writing standards such as ‘Night In Tunisia’ ‘The Champ’ ‘Groovin High’ and ‘Woody ‘n’ You’. Finally in this period he was also experimenting with the afro-cuban rhythms, whilst working with the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo.
If post 1950 Gillespie’s work-rate appeared to slow down it is only in comparison with what had gone before. He mainly recorded for Norman Granz’s labels Clef and Verve, leading small groups and big bands, and he also set up his own Dee Gee label for recording some of his favourite artists. In 1956 his band embarked on a US State department sponsored tour which saw him visit Eastern Europe and the Middle East, then later Latin America. The music he heard in these countries influenced him, and can be heard on albums he recorded in the early 60s, such as the awesome ‘Gillespiana’ suite, which he recorded with his Big Band in 1961. This piece was written by Gillespie’s then latest discovery Argentinian pianist Lalo Schifrin. It was a period that also saw Gillespie compose and perform several pieces for film, firstly for a short on Dutch painter Karel Appel and then for the movie ‘Cool World’ a movie which radically for the time focused on Black American street life.
As the late 60s moved into the early 70s, it was perhaps felt that Dizzy’s best days were behind him, and he was making records under one-off contracts for independent labels such as Gerald Purcell’s GWP. With his position as an important historical figure in black music he could always find himself a deal, and Terry Phillips at Perception felt he would be an important and prestigious addition to his roster.
He made three albums for the label, which show him figuring out his position in the contemporary music scene. The first ‘The Real Thing’ followed on from his GWP album, with Dizzy showing his mettle in the world of soul jazz, which at the time was being successfully mined by the likes of Lou Donaldson and Ramsey Lewis. The line up varies from track to track, but ever present - alongside Dizzy- is his latest discovery and 70s musical director pianist Mike Longo. Today the album is sought after for the track ‘The Matrix’, which has Mike and Dizzy joined by Phil Upchurch on bass, George Davis on guitar and David Lee on piano. This funky groove was sampled by the Beatnuts on their fantastic ‘World Famous’. This line up provides the backbone of the album also appearing on the riffed up, guitar heavy ‘Alligator’, a funky ‘Summertime’ and Mike Longo’s extended ‘Out Of Here’. They are also on the hippy peace and love ‘Closer’ which sees Dizzy singing. There is a percussive opener ‘N’Bani’ with James Moody and Eric Gale who also appear on the closing outro of ‘Ding A Ling’ and the almost mariachi ‘High On A Cloud’. The album is rounded off with ‘Soul Kiss’ which has organ from the Rimshots’ Nate Edmonds and features the original funky drummer Bernard Purdie. Although this is possibly not the best showcase for Gillespie’s viruosity it is an excellent soul jazz outing, and what he does play is impressive.
‘Portrait Of Jenny’ explores what would now be termed spiritual jazz. Featuring three long pieces and one short, Dizzy is exploring rhythms and textures in a similar way to that being done by supposedly cooler players such as Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock. Once again he is joined by Mike Longo and George Davis, but this time they are backed by a rhythm section straight from Latin music with Andrew Gonzalez on bass, Jerry Gonzalez and Carlos Valdes on conga, and the Fania All Star Nicky Marrero on Timbales and no drummer. None of the tracks really take what you could describe as traditional musical routes. Each building through a flow of musical improvisation and percussion, which pulls the listener into the music. Dizzy’s trumpet work comes in and out of play always giving the perfect response to what is going on around him. This album is a much underrated pieced in his cannon and deserves to be heard by more people.
The last of our trio of albums has a title - ‘Giants’ - that describes the calibre of the musicians on the label. Recorded live at the Overseas Press Club in NYC, it sees Gillespie lined up with fellow trumpeter Bobby Hackett, the grand dame of jazz piano Mary Lou Williams, bassist George Duvivier and the great Grady Tate on drums. The record sees the group stretch out on a variety of standards, each showing a joy at playing and an amazing amount of skill. A fantastic set.
After leaving Perception Gillespie would rejoin Norman Granz at Pablo where again he recorded in a variety of settings, including the jazz funk classic ‘Unicorn’ with Longo. After that he was kept busy recording for a variety of labels right up until his death in 1993.