Jazz's Last Hero Trumpeter

You didn't need to know anything about Dizzy Gillespie's paradoxical career or his more paradoxical personality to discern that he was a lively mix of contradictions-you only had to hear him play. His trumpet solos often sounded like duets. He'd catfoot around, toying subversively with the chord structure and the rhythm: that was the wryly self-mocking Dizzy who, when asked if his trademark goatee was an affectation, said "No. It's a fetish." Then he'd shift into musical warp drive, a streak of notes blazing across the tune's inner sky: that was the Dizzy who saw himself, proudly and accurately, as jazz's last hero trumpeter. "I'm on a direct line from Buddy Bolden," he once said. "After Bolden there was King Oliver, Louis Armstrong ... Roy Eldridge and me." Gillespie was an artist and an entertainer, an avant-gardist and a throwback. Small wonder that when he talked about his Bahai faith, what seemed important to him was its doctrine of unity. "They say the prophets are one; if I believe that, I also believe that music is one and that Louis Armstrong and l are one and the same..." Well, yes and no.

When Gillespie died last week, at 75, of pancreatic cancer, he had long outlived Charlie Parker, with whom he'd revolutionized jazz in the early 1940s. He'd also outlived the younger Miles Davis, to whom he'd been a musical mentor-and for whom Gillespie's virtuosity and showmanship left little choice but to become a trumpet antihero. Gillespie's generation brought the modernist esthetic to jazz: a once demotic music suddenly bristled with difficulty. They grafted twisty, enigmatic melodies onto the chords of familiar songs (for copyright reasons and out of sheer cussedness), they reveled in dissonance, they burst out of the lock-step rhythms of the swing era and they played at ungodly tempos. Parker, bop's guiding spirit, was too much the junkie outlaw to be any movement's front man. Gillespie was straight, ambitious, a soloist second only to Parker and a solider musical theoretician. His beret, goatee and horn rims gave him an image; his playfulness won him an audience. Gillespie never popularized bop-that would've been impossible-but he made its assault on convention unthreatening, even fun in a dadaist kind of way. Who else would've had Jimmy Carter, at his Inaugural gala, sing along on "Salt Peanuts"?

Gillespie brought about a second major innovation almost singlehandedly: the fusion of jazz and Latin music. During his apprenticeship with Cab Calloway's band in 1939-40, he'd known Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza. (Gillespie's tenure ended when he pulled a knife on Calloway after being accused of throwing a spitball, and "stuck him a little bit. Didn't hurt him, just took his blood test.") Bauza introduced Gillespie to Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo, who joined the big band Gillespie led in the late '40s and collaborated on such now standard tunes as "Manteca." Many of Gillespie's admirers, including his disciple Jon Faddis, thought he played best with a big band. The bop esthetic generally favored lean-and-mean small groups, but Gillespie, it became clear, had only one foot in the avant-garde. "Dizzy still belongs to the past," pianist John Lewis, once a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, told a Washington Post reporter in 1973. "That means he wants to have a big band, and the kind of big band he'd played with-Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder, Teddy Hill. All these bands were not just playing music-they were show business outfits."

Before Gillespie achieved elder statesmanhood, serious-minded jazz aficionados -and some colleagues-looked down on him, as they had on Armstrong, for hamming it up onstage. (One favorite routine was introducing the members of the band-to each other.) "How can he do that?" said Parker, catching his act one night at Birdland. It's arguable that for every philistine Dizzy got into the tent by singing "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac," "Umbrella Man" or "Hey Pete, Let's Eat Mo' Meat," he drove out an exasperated purist wanting "A Night in Tunisia." But Gillespie loved to sing and clown as well as to flabbergast with his brilliance and inventiveness, and he never quite saw why that should bother anybody. His onetime band member John Coltrane, as monastically pure an artist and as earnest a man as ever lived, once said he envied Dizzy's lightness of heart-"that beautiful gift." Others would've killed to have his chops.

It was typical of Gillespie that he achieved his masterly technique by doing everything wrong. "I have the worst embouchure in the world," he said; no trumpet teacher would let a student's cheeks develop what are now known in medical texts as "Gillespie's pouches." His upswept trumpet bell was another happy accident: someone stepped on his horn, and he found he could hear himself better. As an expert chess player-he once beat Chief Justice Earl Warren-he knew how to calculate his moves, but as an improvising musician, he also knew when to throw calculation to the winds. A final paradox came last week. Gillespie seldom listened to his own music once he'd recorded it; "I mean, he did it," said Jon Faddis. But when he died, peacefully, in his sleep, his recent retrospective "Dizzy's Diamonds" was playing softly in his hospital room. And kept on playing.

Jazz's Last Hero Trumpeter | News