American Tribute to Vaclav Havel and a Celebration of Democracy in Czechoslovakia 1989 - 1990 (TV Show)
One of the most important figures in modern jazz, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie helped to create bebop, a hard, intense and fluid style of playing that came to dominate the genre in the decades that followed. He was also largely responsible for the introduction of Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms into traditional jazz, which would give rise to a genre in its own right. Gillespie was also one of the most beloved performers in the business, an impish, playful presence whose bent trumpet and billowing cheeks brought delight to young children, bohemians in training and seasoned jazz fans alike. But it was his music, which emphasized improvisation and complexity over repetition and conformity that remained his greatest gift to jazz and world culture in general. Without him, such players as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk might not have been inspired to strike out on their own musical paths of freedom and exploration, which in turn, would strike a chord in the hearts of players from all genres - from rock-n-roll to classical to electronic music. Dizzy Gillespie was one of a select number of hands that opened the door to modern music, and in his own way, contributed to the formation of popular modern culture.
Born John Birks Gillespie on Oct. 21, 1917 in Cheraw, SC, Dizzy Gillespie was the youngest of nine children by bandleader James Gillespie and his wife, Lottie. Music was an integral part of his childhood, thanks to his father, and Gillespie began playing piano at the age of four before taking after his idol, the legendary jazz musician Roy Eldridge, and teaching himself trumpet when he was 12. He became skilled enough to receive a music scholarship to the Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina, but dropped out in 1935 to find work as a professional musician. He logged time in bands with Bill Doggett, Frank Fairfax and Edgar Hayes before replacing Eldridge in Teddy Hill's orchestra in 1937, a position he landed largely on his ability to reproduce his predecessor's solos. With Hill, he not only made his first recording - a take on Jelly Roll Morton's classic "King Oliver Stomp" - but also reportedly earned his nickname from the bandleader, based in part on the trumpeter's fondness for practical jokes and offbeat sartorial choices. Gillespie then joined Cab Calloway's orchestra, with whom he recorded one of his earliest compositions, "Pickin' the Cabbage," in 1940. However, Calloway did not approve of the trumpeter's unique approach to solos, which emphasized off beats and improvisation, and fired him after a notorious 1941 incident in which the two came to blows after Calloway accused Gillespie of launching a spitball at him on stage.
Gillespie freelanced with a variety of performers and bands between 1941 and 1943, including Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington, while also penning arrangements for big band leaders like Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman. He finally settled in pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines' band, where he met a fellow free-thinker, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Together, the pair fomented the rise of bebop through their exploration of harmony and rhythm, which stood in stark contrast to the established sound of swing. Gillespie also penned one of his most enduring songs during this period: "A Night in Tunisia" (1942), which broke from tradition by eschewing a walking bass line while integrating elements of Afro-Cuban music in its arrangement. After recording briefly with Parker in Billy Eckstine's big band, Gillespie attempted to strike out on his own with a band featuring Parker. Their recordings together included some of the cornerstones of bop, including "Salt Peanuts" (1945), "Groovin' High" (1945) and "Hot House" (1945), which showcased Gillespie's fierce improvisation and complex arrangements. Response from all but the most scholarly jazz fans was tepid at best, with a disastrous tour through the South nearly bringing the band to an ignominious end.
Undaunted, Gillespie returned to New York, where he teamed with conga drummer Luciano "Chano Pozo" Gonzalez to launch the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. Anchored by a blend of Cuban rhythms and jazz harmonies, the orchestra spearheaded the Afro-Cuban movement of the late '40s, with such original Gillespie-Gonzalez compositions as "Manteca" and George Russell's "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop" setting the tone for generations of Latin and jazz players. The orchestra also featured some of the brightest up-and-comers on the scene, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke, who would form the original lineup of the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as James Moody, Yusef Lateef and a young John Coltrane. The popularity of the orchestra also helped to mint Gillespie's trademark goatee, beret and thick glasses, as well as his fondness for scat-influenced "bop" talk, as evidenced in such songs as "Ool Ya Koo" and "Oo Pop a Da," as the outfit and slang of choice for aspiring bohemians.
But the scene proved short-lived; by 1950, bop was out and Gillespie was forced to bring the orchestra to an end and return to freelancing. He backed Stan Kenton for a while, and then launched his own record label, Dee Gee, which quickly folded. He also reunited frequently with Parker, most famously at a 1953 concert at Massey Hall that also featured fellow jazz giants Bud Powell, Max Roach and the mercurial Charles Mingus. The resulting album would mark Gillespie's final recording with Parker, who died two years later. During this period, Gillespie also began using his trademark "bent" trumpet, which featured a bell that pointed up at a 45-degree angle. The origins of the instrument remained cloudy, with various sources citing an accident involving dancers on stage in 1953 or a similar instrument spotted by Gillespie in England during the late 1930s, but he preferred its unique sound and performed with it throughout his career.
In 1956, Gillespie was enlisted by the State Department to play dates in the Middle East with a jazz orchestra as part of a goodwill tour. The band, which featured such future stars as Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly and Benny Golson, would subsequently play throughout Europe and South America on similar tours until 1958. Upon his return to the United States, Gillespie played in smaller groups with a variety of sidemen, including Kenny Barron and pianist Junior Mance. He remained a staple of major jazz festivals around the world while serving as an educator and inspiration for countless young jazz musicians. In the 1970s, he toured and recorded frequently with an all-star group called The Giants of Jazz, which featured Art Blakey on drums, Thelonious Monk on piano and Sonny Stitt on alto and tenor sax, while also recording with such players as Oscar Peterson, with whom he recorded a pair of albums, including Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie (1974), which won the trumpet legend a Grammy in 1976.
Gillespie published his autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop (1979) shortly before leading the United Nations band throughout the 1980s. After decades of hard, complicated playing, his trumpet skills underwent a natural erosion, forcing him to rely more on his comic presence than his musical abilities in concert. In turn, his ebullient presence made him a favorite guest star on television talk shows and programs, especially children's series like "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ), where his trademark ballooning cheeks delighted pre-school viewers. Gillespie's storied career was the subject of numerous tributes at the tail end of the 1980s and early '90s, from a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honor to Sweden's Polar Prize, the Order of Arts and Letters from France, and even the title of honorary tribal chief in Nigeria. In 1992, he celebrated his 75th birthday with a month-long stand at New York's Blue Note club, where a host of jazz's greatest names came to pay tribute. Soon after, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which prevented him from performing at Carnegie Hall in late 1992. The disease would claim his life on Jan. 6, 1993. Two years later, his trumpet was auctioned at Christie's for $63,000, with the proceeds going to benefit musicians suffering from cancer.
By Paul Gaita