Jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie dead at 75

January 07, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Over the years, jazz has produced musicians who were brilliant players and musicians who were likable popularizers. But only a handful have ever managed to be both, and few of them could balance creativity and charm as well as Dizzy Gillespie did.

Mr. Gillespie died in his sleep yesterday at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, where he had been treated for pancreatic cancer. was 75.

He was clearly one of the giants of jazz. Along with saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, he was at the forefront of the be-bop revolution. Indeed, "Bird and Diz" remain as closely associated with the bop scene as ketchup and mustard are with hamburgers, and Mr. Gillespie's trademark beret, black glasses and goatee seemed for many to define the quintessential cool of the bop era.

Nor was be-bop the only innovation for which he could take credit. If Louis Armstrong can be said to have invented jazz trumpet playing, Mr. Gillespie reinvented it, pushing the instrument to its limits with his high-note acrobatics and impossibly fast runs. He brought a level of virtuosity to the instrument that few trumpeters have matched -- and even then, those who could match his technique were rarely able to equal his ideas.

But no matter how dazzling his playing got, Mr. Gillespie never let technical accomplishment crowd out the sheer joy he felt in playing music. Like Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Gillespie came across as outrageously happy to perform, and he took any opportunity to exercise his impish wit.

As a result, he was seen as a natural ambassador for the music he believed in and assembled several jazz ensembles for tours sponsored by the State Department, visiting Africa, South America and the Middle East as a cultural envoy.

But Dizzy Gillespie -- born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, S.C., on Oct. 21, 1917 -- saw himself primarily as a player. "I always thought I was a musician," he told Musician magazine's Chip Stern a year ago. "Thought I was a musician before I really was a musician."

At first, Mr. Gillespie played trombone, but, as he told Mr. Stern, "my arms weren't long enough to make that stretch," so he

switched to trumpet.

His earliest jazz jobs were with bands led by Teddy Hill and

Lionel Hampton, from which he moved to the Cab Calloway Orchestra in 1939.

His stylistic model was trumpeter Roy Eldridge, whose shoes he filled in the Hill band, but it wasn't long before the young trumpeter had a found a sound of his own. Listen to his solo on Mr. Calloway's 1940 recording of "Pickin' Up the Cabbage," for instance, and even though his sense of line bears an obvious debt to Mr. Eldridge's forthright swing style, the harmonic ideas Mr. Gillespie assays are unique.

Mr. Calloway fired Mr. Gillespie in 1941 for allegedly throwing spitballs during a performance (he hadn't), and the trumpeter moved on to bands led by Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Carter.

He was already building a reputation as a composer, thanks to tunes such as "A Night in Tunisia." He was also spending many a late night at a New York club called Minton's, where he jammed with such fellow innovators as Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke.

But it wasn't until he joined the Earl Hines big band that Mr. Gillespie met his musical match, saxophonist Charlie Parker.

As personalities, the two couldn't have been any more different. Mr. Gillespie was cheerful, professional and clean-living, while Mr. Parker was mercurial, irresponsible and a chronic abuser of drugs and alcohol. On a musical level, though, they were ideally suited, inspiring each other to unexpected greatness.

Mr. Parker and Mr. Gillespie -- Bird and Diz -- played in several big bands together, including the legendary Billy Eckstine Orchestra (which debuted in Baltimore on June 9, 1944) and Mr. Gillespie's own, short-lived big band. But the duo's small-group recordings remain their greatest legacy, with "Groovin' High," "Shaw 'Nuff" and "Salt Peanuts" being perhaps the best known.

Mr. Gillespie's reputation as an innovator didn't end there, though. He had hooked up with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (born Luciano Pozo y Gonzales) and, in 1946, introduced a percussion-heavy twist on be-bop he called "cubop."

Most writers at the time stressed the music's debt to Caribbean music, but as Mr. Gillespie put it in his 1979 autobiography, "To Be or Not to Bop," Mr. Pozo's real musical roots lay elsewhere. The Cuban, he wrote, was "stone African. He knew rhythm -- rhythm from Africa." It was that rhythm that sparked recordings such as "Manteca," which the Gillespie band first recorded in 1947 and which remains a jazz standard.

He launched a write-in campaign for president in 1964, promising Lena Horne as his vice president and Miles Davis as the head of the CIA. He lost but made it to the White House anyway in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter invited him to play "Salt Peanuts" to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Through it all, his playing sparkled, dazzled and shone. "Sometimes you surprise yourself, let me tell you," he said in a recent interview. "There's no telling how long you can play, with the proper feelings."

And make no mistake -- Dizzy Gillespie always had the proper feelings.

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