As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly
Man With a Horn
by Francis Davis
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.
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.
Copyright © 1992 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1992; "Man With a Horn"; Volume 269, No. 3; pages 114-118.