Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) was the jazz Gabriel with the bent horn and horn-rimmed glasses who started a musical revolution. He was born in South Carolina, staking a case for the Carolina Piedmont as the birthplace of bop: the one-and-only Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, NC eleven days earlier.
His own book, To Be or Not ... to Bop was published by Doubleday in 1979, a rollicking and roughhouse story of jazz at it was lived in the TOBA circuit: "Tough on Black Artists" was the name given to the management style that required three-to-five shows a day. John Birks Gillespie, with a growing reputation for eccentric dancing on the bandstand, became a stand-out. "Where's that dizzy cat?" the musicians (and fans) began to ask, and the nickname stuck.
The book is told in the self-effacing style of one who is present at the creation, and who enjoys the stories and camaraderie of life on the road, as well as off the record. There are also reminiscences by companions and players who shared stages with Gillespie, recalling the times with genuine fondness and not a little awe. Here's drummer Kenny Clarke, remembering the hot-house moments of the New York jazz scene as it developed in the 1940s and '50's around Diz and Charlie Parker:
"I used to follow Diz around to all the jam sessions and hear him blow against other trumpet players. He was young and he was blowing. Everybody was asking me, 'What is Dizzy playing?' I was just telling them to 'Listen....' We were with Teddy Hill's band together, Ella Fitzgerald, Claude Hopkins, so we've been barnstorming, early, you know.
I noticed something unique about Dizzy's playing, that's why I was hanging out with him. His approach to modern harmonies, but rhythms mostly. He could take care of all that harmony, but his rhythms interested me real profoundly, and I just had to find out about that gift he had hidden in him, the gift of rhythm. It wasn't only his trumpet playing, he was doing a lotta other things that some people didn't see, but I saw the rhythmic aspect of it. The way he played and the way he would hum time and things like that. I knew it was avant-garde, ahead of time, so I just fell in line with what was going on ....
The most important characteristic of this new style of playing was camaraderie, that was first because everybody, each musician, just loved the other one, just loved them so much they just exchanged ideas and would do everything together. That's one characteristic about it I liked very much. Another word for that isunity. That's right, and I think that era of jazz had more enemies than any phase of jazz.
It was sort of esoteric from the beginning. Only a few people understood what was going on. Everybody knew it was good, but they couldn't figure out what it was. And when somebody doesn't understand a thing, he has a tendency to dislike. But I mean the music has been so strong and was strong, and is strong now .
Whew! Oh, yeah, we used to discuss it on the bandstand sometimes and write out little things. I would say, 'Hey, Diz, whaddayou think of this?', you know. I think when we left Teddy Hill, we definitely knew that was going to happen. We were pretty sure of it, and everybody worked toward the same goal. That's what made it happen."
(Photos of Dizzy Gillespie at a Washington, DC elementary school by Donna Wilcox, 1965. From theJazzWax website.)