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Dizzy Gillespie: Bebop Birthday

Marcia Hillman By

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Dizzy was a unique individual and musician. He just had a different way of looking at things--the music, the chords and that goes for politics as well. It was a different perspective... —Jon Faddis
The bent trumpet, the beret, the horn-rimmed glasses and ballooning cheeks when he played—these alone are enough to identify trumpeter, bandleader, singer and composer "Dizzy" Gillespie. Born John Birks Gillespie in rural Cheraw, South Carolina on October 21st, 1917, he was the youngest of nine children. His father was a musician, so he was exposed to music and was able to obtain a working knowledge of several instruments—he was playing piano at the age of four, started on trombone at age 14 and trumpet a year later. He went on to study harmony and theory at Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina.

Dizzy's early career was an apprenticeship with big bands. From 1937 to 1944, large ensembles were at their peak and Dizzy played with many of the name bands of the era including those of Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Ella Fitzgerald (an orchestra comprised of members of the late Chick Webb's band), Earl Hines (where he first played with Charlie Parker) and Billy Eckstine (where he was reunited with Parker). In the late '40s, he was also involved in the AfroCuban music movement which brought Latin and African elements to greater prominence in jazz and produced his compositions "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo".

And then came bebop. The big bands all but disappeared during and after World War II. It was at this time that Dizzy and Bird (as Charlie Parker had come to be known), jamming at famous New York City jazz clubs like Minton's Playhouse (which has recently been reborn), developed the new melodic, harmonic, rhythmic advancement of jazz known as bebop. Dizzy was writing such bebop classics as "Groovin' High," "Salt Peanuts" and "A Night In Tunisia" and taught many of the young 52nd Street musicians this new style of jazz. Dizzy stayed true to bebop all of his life in whatever group format he was engaged.

It is fitting, therefore, that many of the musicians who played with him over the years get together for a birthday tribute annually. This year, there were celebrations on his 91st birthday (October 21st) at the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium of the New York City Baha'i Center with a lineup of musicians and singers including Jimmy Owens and Annie Ross and Dizzy's Club with Charli Persip's Supersound. A week-long celebration by the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars featuring Slide Hampton (musical director and trombone), James Moody (tenor sax and flute) and John Lee (bass) was at Blue Note (October 21-26th).

Some of the musicians that worked closely with Dizzy over the years have been gracious enough to lend their voices to this article with some of their memories and reflections.

Among the musicians that played with Dizzy either in the big bands he organized or in the small combos, saxophonist James Moody was with him the longest—eight years steadily and 47 years on and off. Moody recalls that Gillespie was "fantastic in more ways than one. He made you feel at ease and in awe at the same time." Moody traveled the globe with Dizzy and remembered one incident in a small town in Italy where they had stopped and at the little airport there, people kept staring at Dizzy. "Dizzy put his finger to his lips and blew out his cheeks as if he were playing. And the people recognized who he was." Moody also recalled Dizzy's love for firecrackers. "He used to go down to North Carolina to buy them."

Pianist Mike Longo worked with Dizzy for five years straight in the '60s as his pianist and musical director and then went on to work on his own and to teach but would go back to play part-time until Dizzy died. "He went nine years without a pianist. He was waiting for me to come back. Same thing with Moody. He didn't want to use any other saxophonist." Longo went on to say, "My family and I called him John. He was very close with my family. He used to stay down there in Florida with them all the time. It started with the race riots in the '60s. We went through a lot of stuff on the road during that period because of me being in the group... from both sides. When we got to Ft. Lauderdale, Dizzy asked my dad if there was a motel for black people. They were still segregated, I think. My dad said that we could all stay at my house. He had the whole band stay at our place. After that, he sort of adopted my family. They became his family and he even stayed there when I wasn't there." Longo toured with Dizzy in the south when Martin Luther King was assassinated and when they got to Atlanta, Longo spent all of his time in the room. He was the only white member of the group and they would send up guards to escort him to play each set and then escort him back to the room until the next set. "So everyone in the band was feeling sorry for me and they were bringing me fried chicken to eat for breakfast and for lunch and for dinner. They were all looking after me. Right after that, we went to Florida."


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