Dizzy Gillespie: a Blue-Chip Jazz Act

DIZZY GILLESPIE and his upswept trumpet could take you from Oop-Shoo-Be-Do-Be to the stars. "I am developing," he once said when in many ways (such as playing fast and high and logically) he was already unsurpassed. What he wrote about his great trumpet-playing predecessor Louis Armstrong makes me think of Dizzy now as the celebrations of his diamond jubilee last year blend into the tributes prompted by his passing this week.

Dizzy (as his fans always called him, he was born John Birks Gillespie) recalled the criticism that "Pops" Armstrong had received for being the ever-smiling entertainer despite his musical genius and the discrimination against black people like himself. Dizzy chose to see that smile - that readiness to connect with everybody - not as a weakness but as an achievement:

"I began to recognize what I had considered Pops's grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile."

It was much the same with Dizzy himself, who would respond to an ovation for a pyrotechnical trumpet chorus by batting his angel eyes and saying: "Not bad for a high-school dropout from South Carolina." (Which may be an exaggeration, because Dizzy said he was always learning something from somebody or something: "You see, you are the sum total of what you know.")

Or, in a routine emulated by many a minor jazz maestro, he'd announce, "And now, ladies and gentlemen I'd like to introduce the members of the band" - and then he would ostentatiously introduce the musicians to each other. He did sing "Oop-Shoo-Be-Do-Be" in the days of frantic, complex be-bop that he helped to invent, and then he'd exalt you with a tightly muted, whispering solo that concealed technique in pure emotion.

When I was introduced to Dizzy as, at that time, a correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, he said: "Oh, would you like my religious views?" A quiet joke, but he did have religious views. He was an adherent of the Bahai faith. In fact, he was reading in a small Bahai book when I happened to be seated next to him on a Lufthansa plane going to the Berlin Jazz Festival. An attendant came by offering newspapers, and I asked for one from Berlin. She said, "I'm sorry, but it's in German." I said I'd li ke to look at it anyway.

Whereupon Dizzy looked up from his book and, deadpan, asked her: "Do you have any Arabic newspapers?"

"No, sir," she said.

"Uh, do you have any Chinese newspapers?"

"Why, no, sir."

"Say," said Dizzy looking around in mock consternation, "what airline is this?"

This was sometime after Dizzy's years with saxophonist Charlie Parker, when the two of them turned the world of jazz upside down. The bop they created, which sounded so extreme at first, has moved into the jazz mainstream. Dizzy became a blue-chip jazz act playing all over the world, but never losing his smile.

Well, at least once he did. On a visit to his hometown of Cheraw, S.C., he discovered the town was making quite a thing of being his hometown. But when he went into a barbershop he was refused a haircut even though the barber was available. Then the barber recognized him and invited him in. Too late! As Dizzy recalled it, he let people know the irony of his situation, and it changed.

If you don't recognize Dizzy Gillespie from these words, you surely would from a photo of him with his cheeks blown out like a balloon in defiance of all the rules for proper trumpet playing. Once he came to the door of a house where a friend was working, and she proudly introduced him to a co-worker as Dizzy Gillespie.

"That's not Dizzy!" said the co-worker.

"Yes, it is."

"No, it isn't."

"Dizzy, do like this," said his friend. So Dizzy sealed his lips with two fingers and blew. The Dizzy cheeks filled the hallway. No need to introduce this member of the band.

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