Fanfare for a Trumpeter
Jazz revolutionary Dizzy Gillespie receives top arts honor in televised ceremony
WASHINGTON — THE white barber in Dizzy Gillespie's hometown of Cheraw, S.C., refused to cut his hair because he was ``colored.'' When did this happen? In 1927, when Dizzy was 10 and preparing to attend the funeral of his father, a bricklayer and part-time musician? Or six years later when he went to work on a WPA road gang to help his mother, who was earning $1.50 a week taking in wash? Or in 1946, when he toured the South with his acclaimed big band? No. It was in 1986, a generation after the civil rights revolution and four years before he was to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, the highest award our nation can bestow upon a performing artist. The distance from that barbershop to the Honors Gala at the Kennedy Center is a measure of how far Dizzy Gillespie has come and how far we as Americans still must go.
The gala, a star-studded entertainment celebrating Dizzy and the other 1990 honorees - Katharine Hepburn, Ris"e Stevens, Jule Styne, and Billy Wilder - took place on Dec. 2. It will be telecast as a two-hour CBS-TV special from 9 to 11 p.m. this Friday, Dec. 28.
John Birks (Dizzy) Gillespie was born, the last of nine children, on Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw. This small, dusty cotton town was brutally racist when Dizzy was growing up.
Dizzy escaped from rural poverty and racism because he fell in love with the trumpet at age 12 and had become an excellent player by the 15. His musical skills won him a full scholarship to Laurinburg Institute, an all-black boarding school in North Carolina.
He started playing professionally at 17, and three years later was touring Europe and recording as a soloist with the Teddy Hill Orchestra. During the next six years he played with the big bands of Cab Calloway, Charlie Barnett, Lucky Millinder, and Earl Hines.
Nineteen-forty was the most important year of Dizzy's career, because that was when he joined with saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk, and drummer Kenny Clarke to lead one of the most powerful artistic revolutions of the 20th century - the be-bop revolution.
Parker was the acknowledged genius of the group, but Gillespie, with unflagging energy, a flair for organization, virtuosic skill, and broad musical knowledge, was its driving force.
The revolution was hatched in several places, but its main venue was a Harlem nightclub called Minton's. Henry Minton, the proprietor, employed Dizzy's former boss, Teddy Hill, as musical director, and Hill hired Clarke and Monk as the nucleus of the club's band. Parker, who was free-lancing all over New York, would frequently sit in. Dizzy was usually on the road with Cab Calloway's and other big bands, but when he came to New York he would hook up immediately with his fellow rebels.
Emotional honesty has always been a cardinal virtue of the improvisor's art. The be-bop revolution has its seeds in the frustration its leaders felt when they could not express their emotions with the rhythmic and harmonic materials at hand. So they radically transformed these materials.
THE most fundamental changes were rhythmic. The be-boppers replaced the traditional OOM-pah two-beat of the bass drum with a shimmering, fluid pulse, played by the drummer on a cymbal. Over this light pulse, the improvisors indulged in the utmost rhythmic freedom. They created angular, asymmetrical phrases, placing their accents wherever they would delight or surprise. And the drummer created polyrhythmic effects to blend with the lines that the soloists were playing.
Looking back on the 1940s rebels, Quincy Jones recently told the Washington Post, ``It was like nitroglycerine, electricity. ... They broke all the rules, changed the whole concept of American music, and people still haven't caught up to what they were into.''
While he was pioneering be-bop, Dizzy began a love affair with Latin music and since that time has been a main force in marrying the Latin and jazz traditions.
Latin music, like jazz, can be viewed as an overlay of European harmony on an African rhythmic base - except that Latin rhythms are more purely African and are much more complex. Dizzy relishes this rich percussion and sees it growing out of a slave culture. ``African slaves in America were not allowed to practice their own religions or to use the drum, their main instrument for communication and ceremony,'' Gillespie told me in a recent interview. ``In places like Cuba and Brazil, slaves could keep their drums and their cultural and religious roots with Africa. They could continue the tradition of talking to each other with the drums.''
Since 1947, when he hired the phenomenal Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, Dizzy has made a Latin repertoire and Latin musicians central to his music. His current big band, the United Nation Orchestra, which serenaded him at the Kennedy Center gala, consists of three Brazilians, three Cubans, a Panamanian, a Dominican, a Puerto Rican, and six Americans.
At age 73, Dizzy is playing with the same technical mastery and fire as at 23. But some things have changed. The clean, pure sound of his early days has turned mellow and buttery, and his improvisations have more poignancy and wit and a bolder structure.
HE says, ``I have a picture of a tune's structure when I start a solo. I'm a rhythm man; it's my strong suit. I see the rhythmic contours when I start to improvise and then the harmonic sequence. Improvisation is a matter of using all the experience you have to resolve the harmonies and shape the rhythms as you move from one place to the next. When you finish a solo, you should have built something.''
Dizzy still entertains all over the globe. He toured for 43 weeks this year, performing in 25 countries and 30 states. He loves to play, and the jubilance and heat of his solos immediately communicates this to his fans.
During the late '40s, be-bop records were hard to find because the general audience preferred the simpler music of a Tommy Dorsey or a Louis Jordan. Those store owners who carried the records of Dizzy and his cohorts would place signs in the store windows which read, ``Be-bop spoken here.'' As Dizzy stepped forward to accept his Kennedy Center Honor, he knew that in 1990 be-bop is spoken everywhere.