Prophet with a Trumpet

January 08, 1993

Some lovers of traditional jazz and swing never quite forgave Dizzy Gillespie for his role in developing the dissonant style of be-bop.

Louis Armstrong, for example, accused the rival trumpeter of simply playing wrong notes. But few musicians in the relatively short history of jazz showed such an unfettered stylistic versatility and creative vitality as Gillespie, who died Wednesday at the age of 75.

"Watching him was like watching a magician," singer Joe Williams said about Dizzy's mastery of a stilted trumpet and his humorous clowning on stages throughout the world.

Other eulogizers competed for superlatives. Jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton called Gillespie "a father of modern jazz." Jazz authority Leonard Feather described Dizzy as "the most honored, the most respected, the most universally praised musician -- not merely of the be-bop era of which he had long been a symbol -- but in the entire history of jazz."

Recordings tell it all. They trace Dizzy's early training and development in the bands of Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstein. They recreate the excitement of his stylistic breakthroughs first with be-bop in the 1940s and later with the rhythmic innovations of Afro-Cuban jazz.

But listening to Dizzy's recordings covers only a small part of the story. To gauge the man's influence one also has to listen to the output of John Coltrane, Charles Parker, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet and dozens of others. They all collaborated with Dizzy. They were influenced by him; he was influenced by them.

As the U.S. government's first official jazz ambassador, Dizzy Gillespie's band toured the world. His annual "Jazzmobile" series brought his band to America's inner cities in the 1970s, including several free concerts in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park.

"There is a parallel with jazz and religion," Dizzy used to say. "In jazz, a messenger comes to the music and spreads his influence to a certain point, and then another comes and takes you further."

Dizzy Gillespie was an important messenger in the progressive revelation of jazz.

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