By Doc Wendell
As the four filthy walls close in on me on another panic driven Wednesday in my office, I realize that this coming Saturday, October 21st will be the 100th Birthday of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. I’ve got my copy of Dizzy’s “For Musicians Only” blasting on my tiny red boom box. To hear Dizzy swinging that hard with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, John Lewis, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Stan Levey defies logic. Those long, often lightning fast rhythmic lines traveling up and down the high, medium and low registers of an instrument with an air hole the size of a grain of rice. The trumpet; the most challenging instrument I can think of.
I tried to play the trumpet a few times in high school. Another jazz obsessed friend bought one and I almost killed myself trying to get one note. I’m not one to give up on something so quickly but that damn thing kicked my ass. I saw stars and nothing; not a single sound. That’s when I realized that Dizzy was god. He swung, danced, screamed and even cried through his trumpet and made it sound and look effortless.
In grade school I bought an audio cassette called “Dizzy Gillespie: Groovin’ High” on Savoy Records. It featured some of Dizzy’s earliest sides as a big band leader such as “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam,” “That’s Earl Brother,” “Our Delight, ” “Things To Come,” “Ray’s Idea,” and “Emanon.” The compilation was also made up of several of Dizzy’s early recordings with Charlie Parker, which sparked a musical revolution; “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “All The Things You Are,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Hot House.” All of this music was recorded in the mid to late ’40s but started in Father Earl Hines’ band in 1943 and then Billy Eckstine’ (who left Hines’ band with Dizzy and Parker) band in 1944. The first bebop record was the classic “Woody n’ You”, which Dizzy recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford in 1944. Due to a recording ban, most the world wouldn’t discover bebop until after 1945. Of course, equal credit for the creation of bebop must also go to Parker and guitarist Biddy Fleet. It was an explosion of new energy and new ideas. I took it all in. I felt the hipness in the music which I never felt before. It made me feel hip, which was rare.
I soon became a Dizzy completest. I grabbed all of his records as quickly as I could. Every time I listened to this amazing man play, I though of trying to get a single note out of the trumpet and surrendering in frustration. I tried to figure out where that dexterity, humor and sublime sense of swing came from. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It would have to remain one of those great mysteries of the universe.
The greatest of the greats came through Dizzy’s band. Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, Don Byas and Yusef Lateef. And that’s just naming a few off the top of my head. Dizzy was the center figure and teacher of modern jazz. He fostered young talent like no one else. It was those up-tempo barn burners like “Dizzy’s Blues,” “A Night In Tunisia, ” and “Manteca” that really grabbed me at first but Gillespie was also a supreme balladeer. Just listen to his renditions of “Lover Come Back To Me” and “I Can’t Get Started.” They’re delicate, mournful and elegant. Dizzy’s warm tone caresses you with each phrase. Everything Dizzy played had soul.
I hope everyone will celebrate Dizzy’s Birthday this Saturday. Be prepared with “Dizzy On The French Riviera,” “Dizzy At Newport,” “The Complete RCA Victor Recordings,” “Birks Works,” “Sonny Side Up” and anything from the master’s vast catalogue. And don’t try to figure out how he did it, just dig it.