Man With a Horn

The indefatigable Dizzy Gillespie symbolizes jazz to audiences and musicians alike

REVIEWERS used to scold Gillespie for wasting so much of his time onstage joking around or playing Latin percussion, in an apparent effort to save his lip. But even though less effort is now expected of Gillespie (he is in his eighth decade, after all), he continues to circle the globe as though campaigning for James Brown's title "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business." Following JVC, for example, he spent all but a few days of July playing concerts and festivals in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He practically lived on the road the rest of the year, appearing in both Brazil and California in a single week in September, and, between engagements in Tokyo and San Juan, spending just a few days at home with his wife of fifty years, Lorraine, in New Jersey during the Christmas holidays.

Gillespie spoke with me from a Monterey, California, hotel room in October. I asked him if he could envision a day in the near future when he would begin to take life easier. "You can't take it easy on the trumpet," he replied. "You have to keep at it all the time." He told me that he thought his sound was now "brighter" and "better" than ever before, as a result of a new mouthpiece that he acquired early last year.

But the melancholy fact is that Gillespie's prowess has diminished to the point where hearing him attempt to swap high notes with his protege, Jon Faddis, at the Doc Cheatham tribute was like seeing the picture of Dorian Gray side by side with the still-unblemished Dorian. Virtuosity is as much mechanical as intellectual, and age delights in robbing virtuosos of the edge they took for granted. Doc Cheatham remains a marvel at the age of eighty-six, but his style never depended on fireworks displays, even when he was younger. Gillespie's did, and he is no longer able to light up the skies with any regularity.

Gillespie still surrounds himself with excellent musicians, however, and he still has his moments. At the Blue Note, where his group included Ron Holloway, an unheralded tenor saxophonist from Baltimore whose solos achieved that remarkable combination of angularity and heft which has long been associated with Sonny Rollins, I heard Gillespie play a blues full of wry shadings and comically deployed silences. He might have been lacking in the bravura that one used to expect from Gillespie, but it was a fine solo by any other conceivable measure.

Gillespie remains a prolific recording artist, and each of the three albums released by him last year has much to recommend it. On Bebop and Beyond Plays Dizzy Gillespie (Blue Moon R2 79170) he joins a Bay Area group led by the saxophonist and flutist Mel Martin for a batch of tunes either written by or associated with him. He even turns in an affecting vocal: Gil Fuller's beautiful "I Waited for You," a ballad that was written for and recorded by Gillespie's big band in 1946. Although the trumpet solos that catch the ear with their imagination and clean execution tend to be those of Bebop and Beyond's Warren Gale, Gillespie is clearly the catalyst on this generally spirited session. The two tracks he sits out are run-of-the-mill, latter-day West Coast bebop.

In 1990 Gillespie starred in and wrote the music for Jose A. Zorilla's The Winter in Lisbon, a European film that only recently found an American distributor. To judge from the synopsis that Gillespie gave me during our telephone conversation, Zorilla's movie explores the same ground that Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight did. Gillespie plays a disgruntled black expatriate who forms a bond with a young white pianist who worships him. Apparently there's also a subplot involving the pianist's girlfriend, a gangster whose mistress she used to be, and a stolen painting.

The soundtrack was finally released last summer (Milan 73138 35600-2), and the problem with it is the problem with most soundtracks: motifs reworked ad infinitum in the interest of dramatic continuity just sound repetitive when extracted from their mise-en scene. But what makes this soundtrack well worth hearing are the selections featuring Gillespie with the pianist Danilo Perez, the bassist George Mraz, and the drummer Grady Tate, who prod triumphant salvos from him on "San Sebastan," and elsewhere encourage from him an uncharacteristic lyricism so intimate that even the notes he flubs seem fraught with meaning.

Perez, whose spacious chordal approach recalls that of Bill Evans, although his touch is more percussive, is also the pianist onLive at the Royal Festival Hall (Enja R2 79658), a London concert recording demonstrating the many virtues of Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra, the fifteen-member ensemble he has led part-time since 1988. The United Nation Orchestra—so named because it includes musicians from Cuba, Brazil, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic—draws heavily on the classic tunes written (or co-written) by Gillespie which employ South American or Caribbean rhythms (his and Frank Paparelli's "A Night in Tunisia," obviously, but also such durable items as his calypso "And Then She Stopped" and his and Chano Pozo's modified rumba "Tin Tin Deo"). By so doing, this new orchestra begs comparison to the most fabled of Gillespie's big bands, the rough-and-ready one from the late 1940s which briefly included Pozo on congas and blended bebop with mambo and elements of Afro-Cuban ritualistic music. Although hardly as innovative as that band—or as talent-laden as the one Gillespie assembled for a 1956 State Department tour and managed to keep afloat for a year or so afterward (Lee Morgan, Phil Woods, and Benny Golson all did stints in it)—this new outfit is likably volatile, thanks in large part to the trombonist Slide Hampton's gutsy arrangements.

Best of all, because the band is well stocked with such animated soloists as the trumpeters Claudio Roditi and Arturo Sandoval, the saxophonists James Moody, Mario Rivera, and Paquito D'Rivera, and the trombonist Steve Turre, who also plays conch shells, Gillespie doesn't have to be the whole show as he sometimes does with his small band (if only to leave his audiences feeling that they've gotten their money's worth). What with showcases for Turre and D'Rivera, plus one shared by the singer Flora Purim and the percussionist Airto Moreira, Gillespie doesn't even solo on every number. Sandoval, the band's high-note specialist, does what amounts to Gillespie's stunt work, and Moody—whose association with Gillespie dates back to the 1940s—subs for Gillespie in speeding through the celebrated break in "A Night in Tunisia." Sandoval, D'Rivera, and Moreira are one-trick ponies whose lack of subtlety works against them as leaders of their own small groups. But they sound terrific as featured attractions in Gillespie's genial musical variety show.

It's a pity that economics prevents Gillespie from touring full-time with the United Nation Orchestra. He has always displayed all the attributes associated with successful big-band leaders, including the often ignored one of showmanship. At several points in his career a big band seemed like the only format grand enough for him. It still does, if for different reasons. At this point a big band also serves the purpose of allowing him to take a well-deserved breather now and then.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In