Writing in The American Scholar David Grogan has given us what is perhaps the best short introduction to the life and achievement of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie. Some excepts follow:
October 21, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Dizzy was a consummate showman: a trumpet virtuoso with blowfish cheeks and horn bent heavenward who in his prime played faster and higher than anyone before or since. In the popular imagination, he was typecast as the steadfast sidekick to saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose meteoric ascent into the jazz firmament and descent into heroin addiction fit the romantic archetype of an artistic genius doomed to die young. The late jazz critic Leonard Feather’s characterization of Dizzy as a “21st-century Gabriel” was more astute. Dizzy sounded a clarion call for the bebop revolution with his dazzling pyrotechnics on trumpet and harmonic innovations as a composer and arranger; expanded the ranks of the jazz vanguard by translating what Bird, Thelonious Monk, and other visionaries were doing into a language aspiring musical insurgents could understand; and then unleashed a host of ancestral spirits from the African diaspora by adding Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian polyrhythms to the mix. He exuded a spirit of joy both on and off stage that reflected his faith in the disarming power of music and laughter to promote racial harmony and world peace, and he was unabashedly “dizzy,” a scatterbrained genius, full of boundless kinetic energy, who left a trail of madcap mayhem behind him.
“In traditional African societies, they say there are times when the creator sends down musical prophets to lift up our spirits,” says pianist Randy Weston. “Dizzy was one of those prophets.” In the late 1940s, Weston was helping his father run a soul food restaurant in their Brooklyn brownstone and met Dizzy around the corner at drummer Max Roach’s house, a favorite hangout for beboppers. What left the most indelible impression on Weston was seeing Dizzy onstage with his Afro-Cuban orchestra, which featured the conga player Chano Pozo. “During the slave era,” Weston says, “the African drum was outlawed in America because our ancestors still remembered how you talk with the drum. They couald take a drum and send a message 20 miles away. When Dizzy had this jet-black Cuban propel his entire orchestra with one drum—bom de bop shoo bop shoo bam—that was a revolution.” Pozo’s style of percussion on “Manteca” and “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” echoed the rhythms of Dizzy’s Yoruba ancestors. “The pulse of Mother Africa, which connects us as a global people, was at the heart of all his music,” says Weston.
The contradictions of genius:
“People didn’t recognize the full scope of Dizzy’s musical genius,” Schifrin says. “They thought he played too many notes. But like Mozart, he played exactly the notes he needed. He was a master of both harmony and melody. And no matter how fast he played, not one note was out of place.”
“He had an IQ of a million, but he couldn’t walk across a room without dropping something,” says Charles “Whale” Lake, who was Dizzy’s road manager for nearly a quarter century. “Every time we got into a limo to leave a hotel, I’d say, ‘Wait a second, John, I think I forgot something.’ Then I’d go back up to his room and find a trail of clothes, books, money, rolls of film, his passport. He was very unkempt.”
Clap your hands:
One evening, in his basement rec room, Dizzy gave me an impromptu lesson in rhythm. “White people clap their hands one two one two, but this goes one and two and one and two and,” he said. Then he began demonstrating a polyrhythmic pattern with his hands and feet while chanting, “Way down south in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.” He chuckled as I struggled to match the dancelike movements of his limbs and keep a steady pulse by stomping on the downbeat with the heel of my right foot. “Whooee, our music is spiritually inspired,” he said.
Diz and Bird:
In 1947, Bird surprised Dizzy when he showed up at his first major concert at Car-negie Hall. “He walked out on stage with a rose,” Dizzy said. “It probably cost him his last 75 cents.” Even though the two teamed up for several historic concerts and recordings in the years that followed, Bird’s erratic behavior gradually tore them apart. Dizzy was forever haunted by his last encounter with Bird, a week before his death in March 1955. “I ran into him at a club called the Embers, on 52nd Street in New York, and he looked so sad. He said, ‘Save me.’ I said, ‘Man, nobody can save you. You have to save yourself.’ When I heard he died, it broke me up. I thought I would never get over it.”
His wife, Lorraine:
Dizzy credited one person with making sure he didn’t get sucked into a vortex of self-destruction like Bird. “My wife, Lorraine, is my Rock of Gibraltar,” he said. When they met in 1937, paying gigs were scarce for Dizzy and she was a petite young widow earning subsistence wages as a member of a traveling troupe of chorus girls. Dizzy was attracted by her lissome beauty and wicked sense of humor, as well as her moral rectitude. “While the rest of the chorus girls were up in the wings looking for musicians who would take them to after-hours joints, she’d be down in the dressing room, knitting or crocheting or reading.” At first she ignored the mash notes Dizzy sent her. But their romance blossomed after she saw him begging outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem for 15 cents to buy a bowl a soup. Lorraine curbed Dizzy’s reckless spending, helped him negotiate with shady booking agents, and brought a sense of emotional stability to his life.
His woman on the side and the mother of his only child:
Bryson’s affair with Dizzy continued for several years while she struggled to raise Jeanie on a paltry income from a variety of temporary jobs. “The money I got from Dizzy was irregular, and only when I saw him in person,” she says. Everything changed after she pressed for steady child support and Lorraine found out about Jeanie. “All hell broke loose. Lorraine had to deal with three really hurtful things. One: I was 20 years younger than her. Two: I was white. But the real kicker: I had the baby. Dizzy later told me, ‘She never lets me forget it. She just sits in the house and doesn’t say anything.’ ” Dizzy formally agreed to make monthly child support payments of $125. Bryson’s relationship with Dizzy unraveled after that. “I never had any illusions that he and I were going to ride off into the sunset together,” she says. “But I was madly in love with this man, madly in love. And he loved Jeanie.”
There's more – the article goes on through his conversion to Baha'i to his death, but these excerpts will have to do. It's an excellent article.
I met Gillespie twice, once in Baltimore after a concert he gave at Morgan State in the early 1970s, and once in Buffalo at a club in the mid-1970s, where I was introduced to him by Frank Foster, who was teaching at SUNY Buffalo at the time. I opened for him once, in Albany in 1984.