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Google and Dizzy Gillespie

Matt Schudel

In case you haven't used Google today (Oct. 21), you may not have noticed an unusual design on the home page: a razzmatazz boogie of semi-abstract art with a likeness of Dizzy Gillespie.

Today would have been Dizzy's 93rd birthday, and -- 17 years after his death -- he remains one of the most unforgettable characters of American music. It's sad that jazz has become such a marginal part of modern life, because if more people knew the story of Dizzy's life and music, the world would be an immeasurably better place.

If he's remembered in the popular imagination at all, it's as the puff-cheeked joker of jazz, a garrulous, laughing character with his trumpet bent at an odd angle. Dizzy Gillespie was actually a much more serious person than his image would suggest, and, as one of the prime architects of bebop, he is one of the five most important figures in jazz history.

For a glimpse of his music, check out this high-quality video from the early 1960s of Dizzy playing "Tin-Tin Deo," accompanied only by the superb bass work of Chris White. (For a brief view of a more exuberant Dizzy, go to this 1959 video of him directing and playing the first chorus of "Manteca.")

In one of my earlier journalistic incarnations, when I was a jazz critic in Florida, I cut out a small photo of Dizzy and pasted it over my own face on my company ID badge. Whenever I entered the building, I proudly showed my badge with Dizzy's face in place of mine. No one ever stopped me.

When Dizzy died in January 1993, long before I became an obituary writer, I wrote the following appreciation:

His face was built of kindness, and the light of laughter always danced in his eyes. His cheeks bulged wider than a bullfrog's, his bent trumpet pointed toward the heavens, and no one could ever forget the enduring presence of Dizzy Gillespie.

When he died last week at the age of 75, he was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and one of the best-loved Americans of our time. You may think of him as a jovial Santa Claus of jazz, but if you care about the music and the cultural soul of America, you should know how important Dizzy Gillespie really is.

''We truly lost a giant,'' said trumpeter Red Rodney, who first met Gillespie in 1945. ''He brought a whole new style to jazz in the '40s, and it's still new. Charlie Parker helped start it, but Dizzy brought it to the world.''

What they created was bebop, the high-speed, high-wire music that shattered almost everything we had come to know about melody, harmony and rhythm. It hits the ear in flurries and waves, and is still hard to understand.

But behind the sprays of sound and ribbons of rhythm lie logic, purpose and form. Parker and Gillespie never abandonded melody. They just took it apart and rebuilt it with new colors and bold nuggets of sound. They helped raise jazz from ballroom and barroom entertainment to high art.

John Birks Gillespie was born Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw, S.C., the youngest of nine children. By his early teens, he had taught himself to play the trumpet.

At 19, he was playing in big bands in New York and had already earned his lasting nickname from his bandstand antics. In 1941, when Cab Calloway accused Dizzy of throwing a spitball on stage, they got in a backstage fight and Dizzy lunged at him with a knife. Calloway fired him on the spot, but they later became friends.

In the mid-'40s, Gillespie was in the bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, along with saxophonist Charlie Parker. They jammed late into the night in Harlem nightclubs, developing the peculiar new voice of bebop. (Dizzy may even have given the music its name, describing a rhythmic run: bop-bop-BE-bop.)

Parker's problems with alcohol and heroin are well known, and he died in 1955 at age 34. Gillespie stayed free of drugs and always credited his wife, Lorraine, for keeping him clean.

With Parker gone, Gillespie broadened the vocabulary of jazz to include the accents of Latin America and Africa. From the 1940s on, he often worked with Cuban musicians, and in 1977 he performed in Castro's Cuba and Carter's White House.

Though he ran a mock-serious write-in campaign for president in 1964, Dizzy always rose above politics and pettiness. He traveled the world for 40 years, taking his music to every continent, sometimes as the official emissary of the State Department. He performed in Iran and Kenya, in Japan and Brazil, and once played his trumpet in Pakistan with a live snake coiled around his head.

He spread his goofy humor and good cheer everywhere. In Edinburgh, he would affect a proper British accent and stop bewildered Scotsmen to ask, ''Pardon me, my name is Gillespie and I am looking for my relatives.''

In concerts he used to say, ''And now I'd like to introduce the members of the band.'' Then he would formally introduce the drummer to the bassist, the trumpeter to the saxophonist, etc., with handshakes and deep bows all around.

His musicians once lost track of him at an airport, only to find him coming through the chute of the baggage carousel on his back, a luggage tag in his mouth. ''Somebody claim me,'' he shouted. ''Somebody claim me!''

Behind the humor, though, Dizzy was a man of deep seriousness and intelligence. His creative brilliance was equal to that of any other American musician or composer, jazz or classical. He is one of the half-dozen leading figures in the history of jazz.

In 1968, Gillespie became a member of the Baha'i faith, which holds that no race is superior to another and that spiritual awareness is the most important thing in life. He loved to teach, and often carried his message and his music to schools around the country, including Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High School.

Well into his 70s, Gillespie played 300 shows a year. His band was always well rehearsed, and he was always on time. Besides being one of the three most influential trumpeters in jazz (the others are Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis), Gillespie wrote hundreds of songs, including the standards Con Alma, Groovin' High, Woody 'N' You and A Night in Tunisia.

His puffed-cheek style violated every rule of trumpet-playing, yet it worked for him. His solos darted off at inventive angles, yet he also could play heartbreakingly sweet melodies. He could memorize a complicated song by playing it just once.

From 1953 on, Dizzy's trumpet was was turned up at a distinctive 45-degree angle. His horn got its odd shape during a party at a Manhattan club called Snookie's, when a member of the dance team of Stump 'n' Stumpy fell on the trumpet and bent the bell at 45 degrees. Dizzy first had it straightened, but decided he could hear himself better with the bell turned up, and from then on that's how his horns were made.

He always remembered the date that his trumpet was bent -- Jan. 6, 1953 -- because it was his wife's birthday. We will remember it, too, with a kind of full-circle irony, because 40 years later, to the day, Dizzy Gillespie died.

He wouldn't want us to play a sad, blue-toned song, though. His music, his humor and his humanity were all woven together in the tight, complex rhythm that made up his wonderful life. And above it all, you can hear it still -- a sweet, soaring melody that takes your soul to the sky.

By Matt Schudel  | October 21, 2010; 4:42 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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One of greatest trumpeters of all-time. Here is a rare clip of Dizzy Gillespie performing "Gillespiana" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961-

Posted by: cavantim | October 21, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Mr. Schudel, for reminding us how much we miss Dizzy's presence.

Posted by: eomcmars | October 21, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Mr. Schudel, that was beautiful. I've got Diz on my lineup for listening tonight...

Posted by: Iamawallet | October 21, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

Dizzy is definitely one of my favorite artists of any kind. I took a music appreciation class at the University of Missouri - Kansas City to fullfill an art requirement for my chemistry degree, and heard "A Night in Tunisia" with Dizzy, Miles, and Charlie Parker. I've been listening to Jazz ever since. Great artist. I love that he help bring Latin Jazz and Samba to the U.S (Manteca on XM takes its name from one of his songs).... Interestingly, I heard "Do I DO" on the radio today by Stevie Wonder and there's a version with Dizzy doing a solo. Thank you Dizzy.

Posted by: lgtd4 | October 21, 2010 8:47 PM | Report abuse

Bird lives, Dizzy smiles

Posted by: cleanfront | October 21, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

I had the thrill of interviewing Dizzy for the Washington Afro-American in the late 1970s. He was in town for an annual jazz concert sponsored by Lou Sabin who owned a record store specializing in jazz on Penn. Ave. in SE. Dizzy and I had lunch on what was then the Shoreham Hotel on Calvert St. near Conn. Ave., where Dizzy and the other musicians were staying. Dizzy was hilarous with the jokes as many of the other jazz giants stopped by our table to say "hey." I still have the cassette tape of the interview.

Posted by: rglass23 | October 21, 2010 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Alas, poor me. I don't dig jazz. But it was playing in the dentist's office this morning and it sounded great, comforting; -even through mild discomfort and the noise which the truly amazing dental tools can't escape producing.

Posted by: jpk709 | October 22, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this - you might, perhaps over-rate him, but he was brilliant and delightful. ...and when he flew - wow!

Posted by: fr3dmars | October 22, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse

@ rglass23 - make a recording of that tape and post the audio on youtube. Others would love to hear it and it'd be a shame if it never became disseminated, for the future. Archive by sharing the sound.

Posted by: bentoenail | October 22, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

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