Dizzy Gillespie: A Blue-Chip Jazz Act

Article excerpt

DIZZY GILLESPIE and his upswept trumpet could take you from Oop-Shoo-Be-Do-Be to the stars. "I am developing," he once said when in many ways (such as playing fast and high and logically) he was already unsurpassed. What he wrote about his great trumpet-playing predecessor Louis Armstrong makes me think of Dizzy now as the celebrations of his diamond jubilee last year blend into the tributes prompted by his passing this week.

Dizzy (as his fans always called him, he was born John Birks Gillespie) recalled the criticism that "Pops" Armstrong had received for being the ever-smiling entertainer despite his musical genius and the discrimination against black people like himself. Dizzy chose to see that smile - that readiness to connect with everybody - not as a weakness but as an achievement:

"I began to recognize what I had considered Pops's grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile."

It was much the same with Dizzy himself, who would respond to an ovation for a pyrotechnical trumpet chorus by batting his angel eyes and saying: "Not bad for a high-school dropout from South Carolina." (Which may be an exaggeration, because Dizzy said he was always learning something from somebody or something: "You see, you are the sum total of what you know.")

Or, in a routine emulated by many a minor jazz maestro, he'd announce, "And now, ladies and gentlemen I'd like to introduce the members of the band" - and then he would ostentatiously introduce the musicians to each other. He did sing "Oop-Shoo-Be-Do-Be" in the days of frantic, complex be-bop that he helped to invent, and then he'd exalt you with a tightly muted, whispering solo that concealed technique in pure emotion.

When I was introduced to Dizzy as, at that time, a correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, he said: "Oh, would you like my religious views?" A quiet joke, but he did have religious views. …