Dizzy Gillespie: `Jazz will always have its place in history'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``When I was about 13 years old,'' says John Birks (Dizzy) Gillespie, ``this piano player came and sent for me to play with him, because I was the shining example of what was happening in Cheraw, S.C. He asked me, `What do you want to play?' and I say, `What do you know?' He looked at me, and finally he said, `You know ``Nagasaki''?' I said yes, and he started it off in the key of C and I couldn't find the note, because I could only play in B-flat, and I couldn't read. That was my most embarrassing moment in music, and I cried, and everything, oh....'' But Dizzy Gillespie - the great trumpeter, bebop innovator, jazz ambassador, composer, arranger, and all-around original hipster - did learn how to read music. Now, 58 years later, with his trumpet bell still pointed straight to heaven and his cheeks puffed way out, Dizzy is as energetic and creative as ever.

Jazz lovers can catch Gillespie in action this Friday on a PBS ``Great Performances'' program entitled ``Wolf Trap Salutes Dizzy Gillespie: An All-Star Tribute to the Jazz Master'' (check local listings).

The gigantic jam session, held last June in honor of Gillespie's 70th birthday, includes jazz greats Benny Carter, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Gomez, Carmen McCrae, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Mongo Santamaria, and Oscar Peterson, among others.

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With a perpetual twinkle in his eye and his famous growling laugh at the ready, Gillespie spoke in a recent interview about the state of music today. As one of the originators of bebop, as well as the first to combine jazz and Latin music, Dizzy is interested in cross-cultural music of today.

``With all these different kinds of music and ethnic music, all coming together, in about 15 years, you won't be able to tell what kind of music it is. Jazz has the ability to take it all in.''

Does Gillespie think jazz will still be jazz 15 years from now?

``Jazz will always have its place in history,'' he answered. ``There are certain things that are so dynamic on the planet, that will always be there.''

Nowadays, the jazz scene is quite different from what it was when Gillespie was coming up as a young trumpeter. Today, we have jazz education in schools and colleges, whereas Gillespie and his peers had to learn from their predecessors. But he's a strong supporter of instruction in jazz.

``I love it. It prepares our musicians for a job. They take harmony, they take composition, oh, man, and they know it. We've got many young musicians that know the music. And they give you such respect, these young musicians. When the young guys come out and play your licks, that's their way of toasting you when they do that, so you say, OK, go right ahead. It doesn't matter, because everybody is a thief in this business.''

Dizzy should know, since he admits he's stolen a few himself.

``Sometimes I'll steal a lick or two from what Miles [Davis] did. Sometimes I'll steal a lick or two from what Fats [Navarro] did - anybody say that they haven't stolen from somebody else, they must be in some other kind of business!''

But it bothers him that there aren't more black students in jazz and involved in the jazz education programs.

``And it's their music,'' he said, adding that he can understand why they stay away. ``Listen, we've had such a hard time in the first place. A mother and father who are sending their child to college, they want to be sure that he can earn a living after spending all this money, and when he says I want to take jazz, they say, `WHAT? WHAT, JAZZ?' You better go and be an undertaker, or a lawyer, or an accountant....''

Then, with a smile, he added, ``But we do have some bullheaded young musicians. They know what they want, and they go for it ... it's beautiful.''

Amy Duncan covers popular music for the Monitor.

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