He was a world-famous trumpeter, one of the pillars of jazz, but Dizzy Gillespie was the antithesis of the haughty star. In fact, during one of his trips to Canada, in the mid-1980s, Gillespie’s gregarious nature had his friend Moe Koffman convinced that the musician was in trouble. Koffman, the Toronto-based jazz flutist who sometimes performed with Gillespie, told Maclean ’s that he had once arrived to pick him up at the airport, but could not find him. “I thought he might be having problems with
immigration,” said Koffman, who finally spotted Gillespie an hour later. “When I asked him where he’d been, he said ‘Well, I got into a conversation about needlepoint with this old lady on the plane.’ ’’Added Koffman: “And he wasn’t pulling my leg.” With the trumpeter’s death at 75 last week in a New Jersey hospital, of pancreatic cancer, Gillespie’s fans mourned the loss of that warmth as well as his musical brilliance. Said Koffman: “Dizzy was a genius. He had lots of imitators, influenced everybody to some degree, and he was very generous with his knowledge.”
Born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, S.C., he rose from humble beginnings to become an
international figure honored by American presidents and African leaders alike. (He was made an honorary chief in Nigeria in 1989.) His musical achievements were accompanied by a flair for showmanship and comic timing that endeared him to his many audiences. He released more than 100 recordings, and several of his compositions, including A Night in Tunisia, Salt Peanuts, and Woody n You, have become jazz standards. And his trademarks— the ballooning cheeks, the upturned bell of his trumpet—were emblems of his art to musicians and fans alike. “Music is different simply because he lived,” said Ted O’Reilly, host of The Jazz Scene, a 28year-old Toronto radio program.
Gillespie, alto sax player Charlie (Bird) Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk and several other contemporaries created the foundations of modern jazz with an innovative style that became known as “bebop,” then simply “bop.” In the nightclubs of New York City in the early 1940s, they experimented with complex harmonies, chord progressions and shifting rhythms that irritated or baffled traditional musicians but inspired a whole generation. “If Bird was the intuitive genius of bebop, Dizzy was the organizing genius, the passionate rational force,” wrote Ian Carr in Jazz: The Essential Companion. The two renowned musicians, along with fellow jazz luminaries Bud Powell (piano), Charlie Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums), played together at Toronto’s Massey Hall on May 15, 1953, the last time before Parker’s death in 1955. The legendary performances, which Mingus privately recorded, have surfaced in a variety of forms and are widely coveted.
Although bop was the foundation of Gillespie’s career, he reached out to other styles, particularly the African-derived rhythms of Cuba’s music. In 1947, he hired Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the result was a fusion of Latin music and jazz that began a second revolution in the form. And it was the beginning of a lifelong association with Cuban musicians, including trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito de Rivera—they de-
fected and played in Gillespie’s United Nation Band in the 1980s.
A 1989 documentary, A Night in Havana, traced Gillespie’s love affair with Cuban music and included a scene of Fidel Castro presenting him with a box of his trademark cigars. Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett, who performed at the 1990 Havana Jazz Festival, recalled the adulation many Cubans felt for the American musician. The Cuban co-producer of her 1992 album Spirits of Havana, Guillermo Barreto, had memorized almost every trumpet solo Gillespie had recorded, and could mimic most of them note for note in song. When he eventually met his idol in Havana, he was so overcome that he wept.
A tireless traveller, Gillespie was one of jazz’s best ambassadors, logging about 300,000 miles a year and performing about 200 nights a year. He was a devout follower of the Baha’i faith and never fell prey to the drugs and alcohol problems that hurt so many of his peers. He often credited his stability to his wife, Lorraine, a dancer he married in 1940, and who survives him.
In the last chapter of his 1979 autobiography To BE or Not... to BOP, Gillespie said that he wanted to see jazz musicians elevated to the status of classical musicians. And he wrote that in America, black performers were not given enough credit for creating and refining jazz as an art form. He urged his country to accept “the gift of jazz which has spread from its own culture all over the world.” For fans everywhere, Gillespie himself was one of jazz’s best gifts, and his departure sounds a melancholy note.
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