Bebop Takes a Hard Shot: Dizzy Gillespie
McConnell, Frank, Commonweal
Dizzy Gillespie died on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1993.
Now you're going to read, or most likely have already read, a lot of testimonials to Dizzy that will tell you that, in the mid-1940s, he and Charlie Parker virtually reinvented jazz--which is to say, virtually reinvented American music--which is to say, no kidding, changed the world as we hear it. And if you believe, as I do, that jazz--not literature, not dance, not drama, but jazz-- is the American Sublime, then I needn't try to convince you that the passing of John Birks Gillespie, born 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina, is a moment of high solemnity in the secret, psychic history of the republic. And, of course, if you've ever listened to his music, you don't even need to have read this paragraph. I think it was that good man, Nat Hentoff, who once wrote, "Dizzy is a cosmic force": that was not hyperbole.
The morning after our annual Twelfth Night party I woke up and after the requisite coffee and cigarettes played, not anything by Gillespie, but my tape of Milos Forman's Amadeus. Let me tell you why.
In the early forties, in New York, a bunch of young musicians found themselves gigging together occasionally, running into one another socially, and talking a lot about music and the ways they could make their music better, make it more their music. Among them were John Gillespie who played trumpet, Charles Christopher Parker who played alto saxophone, and Thelonious Sphere Monk who played piano. They had a few things in common: they were all African-Americans, they were all unknown and very likely to remain so, and they were, astonishingly, all possessed of genius. By the end of the decade the music they forged had become widely accepted and admired by white folks the very people for whom it had not been designed--and had come to be called "Bebop." Now "Bebop" is a pretty stupid name. But then, "jazz" is a pretty stupid name, too: in New Orleans, circa 1900, it was simply a local variant on the f-word (the only word in English, by the way--ask any Chicagoan--that can serve as all eight parts of speech). Would you call Mozart's music, say, "Doodly-doop?" It's significant-- no dammit, it's revelatory--that the American establishment has systematically invented marketing terms for our greatest cultural achievement that are either trivializing or (all puns intended) denigrating.
And that was the point of the music. What Diz, Bird, and Monk--and Bud Powell and Max Roach and Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron and that whole largely doomed, blessed battalion (Max, insh' Allah, being still with us)--what these men were about was creating a music that white guys couldn't play, couldn't water down or nice-nelly or co-opt into the kind of pabulum suitable for the junior prom. Bebop is very fast; it is harmonically very complicated; it is very angry, even forty years after it was first recorded. Listen to "Dizzy Atmosphere," recorded in 1945. It will only take two minutes and forty seconds of your time. The tempo is, like, allegro cubed. Bird and Diz play the tune in perfect unison. Bird solos first, eating up the changes like a PacMan from hell and you wonder if the bastard ever takes a breath. And then Dizzy. Dizzy on open horn, with that clarion, almost baroque-trumpet heartstopping clarity of tone that was his trademark and the despair of everybody who came after, bending notes at will and in absolute control of the horn and--it's the subtext-- dating anybody else to play that high, that fast, and that smart. As I said, it takes less than three minutes to listen to. And for all it implies, it's at least as important an event in the growth of the national soul as, say, The Great Gatsby. …