Man With a Horn

The indefatigable Dizzy Gillespie symbolizes jazz to audiences and musicians alike

THOUGH it's a touch grotesque, the artist Mark Diamond's hologram of Dizzy Gillespie is lifelike enough to halt you in your tracks as you hurry past the jazz club called Fat Tuesday's, on Third Avenue between 17th and 18th, in New York. Gillespie—white-haired even to the tuft under his lip and looking close to his present age of seventy-four—smiles and lifts his trumpet to his lips (it's that oddly designed horn of his, with the bell tilted up away from the tubing and valves). Then he swells his cheeks into enormous pouches and blows, his neck expanding too, before the movements reverse and he smiles again, this time as though acknowledging applause.

Gillespie follows you into Fat Tuesday's, where there is a large poster of him to the far left of the bandstand. And on a wall opposite the bandstand at the Blue Note, a club a few blocks west and several blocks south, where I heard Gillespie perform with his quintet last year, there is a mural showing a much younger Gillespie in action with some of bebop's other progenitors, including Charlie Parker, on a similar bandstand in the 1940s.

At one point last year Gillespie seemed to be everywhere I looked. I saw him on TV with Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, and Arsenio Hall (unlike most guests on their programs, he wasn't promoting new "product"—he was just being Dizzy Gillespie), and on the promos for "The Soul of American Music," a black music-awards show on which he appeared to be the token jazz musician. He even turned up last year in an issue of Bon Appetit, in which it was revealed that he once feasted on crocodile in Zaire and that the only thing he ever cooks at home is a breakfast of salmon with grits. In New York last June, I heard him at three different shows in one week, all presented as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. One of these was a tribute to Doc Cheatham, an indefatigable trumpeter twelve years Gillespie's elder. The others were memorials for Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan, both of whom died in 1990, and both of whom made their first important records with Gillespie, in the 1940s.

Gillespie, exercising a monarch's noblesse oblige, also appeared, unbilled, at "Bebop, Forty and Under," a JVC program that I missed. The reviews indicated that Gillespie, the oldest man on stage by several decades, had set the pace for the trumpeters Jon Faddis, Roy Hargrove, and Wallace Roney on three numbers that climaxed the show, one of which was his own "A Night in Tunisia" (which he first recorded with Vaughan, in 1944, under the title "Interlude").

At the three concerts I did see, Gillespie appeared to be struggling with his intonation and reluctant to test his upper register, although he compensated by delivering savory, low-pitched blues licks behind the singers Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine at the tribute to Vaughan. Both this show and the one honoring Gordon were somber affairs, at which the mortality of the senior musicians on stage supplied an unstated theme. In contrast, the evening for Cheatham, though overlong and indifferently paced, teemed with unruly virtuosity—most of it supplied by Faddis and the trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Ruby Braff.

Even so, whenever Gillespie moseyed onstage, he instantly became the center of attention, and the other musicians seemed to huddle around him, as if waiting for their cues. In the sense that this concert and the others during the week—including "Bebop, Forty and Under"—amounted to opportunities to take measure of the small gains won and the enormous losses suffered by jazz in recent years, none of them would have been complete without Gillespie's participation. At this point he symbolizes jazz to those who play it and those who listen to them.

GILLESPIE also symbolizes jazz to those outside that circumscribed orbit. His name isn't included among the things that E. D. Hirsch, Jr. thinks "literate Americans know," but then again, neither is Marlon Brando's. Lacking a hit single such as "Mack the Knife" or "Hello, Dolly," Gillespie isn't universally recognized and cherished the way Louis Armstrong was, and the likelihood is that no jazz instrumentalist ever will be. Still, with the recent death of Miles Davis, Gillespie is probably the only living figure from jazz whose name—reminiscent of a time when musicians as well as ballplayers were called things like "Dizzy," "Duke," and "Pee Wee"—rings a bell for most people. Gillespie is suddenly famous again, just as he was in the late 1940s, when bebop's virtues were being debased in the mainstream press and (as a glance at Richard O. Boyer's delightful 1948 New Yorker profile of Gillespie reminds us) the style was identified in the public imagination with such stereotypes as berets, goatees, dark glasses, Meerschaum pipes, Islam, and flatted fifths—that day's equivalents of baseball caps turned backward, "fade" haircuts, sneakers, hood ornaments worn as medallions, Afrocentricism, and DJ mixes.

Bebop's image has changed over the decades, and so has Gillespie's. In his youth he was regarded first as a rebel without a cause, on account of his antics as a big-band sideman in the late thirties and early forties, and then as a rebel with one, after his musical experiments and those of Parker and a handful of others gradually coalesced into jazz's first avant-garde movement. Today bebop is accepted on faith as classic even by people unsure of whether they've ever actually heard any, and Gillespie is venerated for having been one of its chief oracles, second in importance only to Parker, who died in 1955 and is therefore a phantom to us. Although the number of people able to name even one of Gillespie's tunes might be small, millions of newspaper readers and television viewers recognize that "bent" horn and those puffed-out cheeks.

What's missing from this image of Gillespie is what's unavoidably missing from that hologram of him in the window of Fat Tuesday's—the crackle of his music. Most accounts of Gillespie's career understandably dwell on his accomplishments in the 1940s, when every note he played was accepted as history in the making. But I happen to think that he reached his zenith in the early 1960s, a period in which he wasn't so much underrated (he has never been underrated) as taken for granted amid the clamor surrounding Ornette Coleman's free jazz, Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's modes, and Horace Silver's and Art Blakey's funk. This opinion is based, of necessity, on out-of-print records, such as Something Old, Something New, which featured what was arguably Gillespie's finest band, with the then very young pianist Kenny Barron and the saxophonist and flutist James Moody, and Gillespiana, an album-length suite written by the pianist Lalo Schifrin, Barron's predecessor in Gillespie's group. (One of several orchestral works commissioned by Gillespie around that time, in a futile attempt to beat Miles Davis and Gil Evans at their own game, Gillespiana has aged surprisingly well, and Gillespie still frequently plays its "Blues" section with his quintet.) Records, of course, can be misleading. But a friend of mine, who heard Gillespie in nightclubs on numerous occasions during this period, confirms my impression that Gillespie was then topping himself nightly.

Gillespie was so much the compleat trumpeter that it was difficult to say which was more impressive—his ease in unfurling lengthy and rhythmically compounded phrases or the inflections he could squeeze out of one note. His high notes whistled, and he tossed off entire choruses above the staff. His low notes, when he held them, frequently sounded the way he does when pronouncing the name of his birthplace: "Chee-roh, South Carolina," spelled "Cheraw." (Although bebop was an urban phenomenon, it's worth considering that Gillespie and Parker, its pace-setters, grew up on or near farmland.) Filled with passing chords and other harmonic brainteasers, Gillespie's solos nonetheless had a rich sarcasm about them that immunized them against excess abstraction.

In jazz as in classical music, there are two types of virtuosity: the utilitarian and the utopian. The utilitarian—that of an Oscar Peterson or a Freddie Hubbard—leaves you feeling that you've just heard a musician unsurpassed at what he does. The utopian—that of Gillespie, Parker, Armstrong, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Rollins, and Art Tatum—momentarily persuades you that human knowledge has evolved to such an extent that nothing is impossible. There was nothing that could be done on a trumpet that Gillespie in his prime could not do, and nothing imaginable either rhythmically or harmonically that he hadn't seemingly already thought of.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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