It’s a strange but true saying that nice guys finish last, and this saying applies, in some ways to the great jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Although Dizzy in no way finishes last in any jazz conversation – you never get too far down the list of jazz giants before Gillespie’s name appears – he importance is often overshadowed by contemporaries such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
In a new biography by Donald L. Maggin, whose last book examined the life of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, the legendary Gillespie receives his due share of historical reassessment. Dizzy’s crucial importance in the history of jazz’s development may be overlooked in part because he made very difficult things look very easy, and, in part, it may be because his life story lacks the sordid or mysterious glamour of Parker and Davis.
But biographer Maggin makes it very clear just how prodigal and ambitious Gillespie was from the very beginning. Determined, with his family, to escape the sharecropping life in South Carolina, Dizzy quickly found that music was his magic carpet to ride to personal fulfillment and material success. Barely more than 20 years old in 1938, Gillespie would find himself in New York City on the verge of developing – along with Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk – an entirely new approach to playing music. Gillespie and his colleagues called it modern jazz – although it came to be known as bebop – and it offered a wide-open and virtuosic style of writing and improvisation that made the prevailing swing music of the time seem slow and boring. Historically, most people credit Charlie Parker with “discovering” bebop, but Dizzy more than anyone else was able to synthesize all the contributions of its founders into a coherent new way of playing. And Gillespie was bebop’s public face and leading emissary in the new music’s struggle for mainstream acceptance in the years to come.
An often overlooked contribution of Gillespie’s, too, are his approach to leading a band. Dizzy insisted upon an extremely high standard of technical mastery from all those he played with – in fact, developing the idea of a “virtuoso ensemble” where everyone – all the horn players and the rhythm section – could play anything at any time and in any way imaginable. In his big bands and small combos, too, he set up the idea – later copied by Art Blakey and Miles Davis – making his groups both a laboratory for developing new ideas from young talent and as a musical finishing school for those players.
Gillespie, too, was central in bringing Latin elements into the vocabulary of jazz – first in his development of Afro-Cuban jazz with 1940s musicians Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo, into the 80s and 80s with Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera. Just as Gillespie was interested in expanding the harmonic vocabulary of music through bebop, he expanded the music’s rhythmic vocabulary as well with the infusion of Chono Pozo’s polyrhythms in his early Afro-Cuban music, which paid tribute to the Yoruba ancestors that both Gillespie and Pozo had in common.
Some would argue that Gillespie lost his way a bit in his later decades when he became caught up in his role as sometime musical ambassador to the world, in participating in the civil rights movement, even in his half-serious campaign for president. But Gillespie, who never succumbed as did his contemporaries to his darker demons, was a man of generous spirit and social conscience. He remained, to the end, an expansive musical thinker, a bighearted teacher of his knowledge of music, and a champion of the universal appeal of the music he loved.
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