Dizzy Gillespie – Clown Prince of Bop

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was one of three founding fathers of the form of jazz which came to be known as “Bop” in the early and mid-1940s – along with Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Thelonious Monk (piano). But he transcended categorization as his career progressed, his clear clarion-call trumpet setting the standards for jazz trumpet playing.

Born John Birks Gillespie in the South Carolina town of Cheraw in 1917, he moved to Philadelphia in 1935. Accounts vary about his upbringing and musical education, but Gillespie was self-taught and played both piano and trumpet. His idol was Roy Eldridge – the trumpet player credited with being the “bridge” between Louis Armstrong and modern jazz.

Accounts also vary about how he got his name. According to Alyn Shipton's biography, it occurred soon after Gillespie joined the Frankie Fairfax band in Philadelphia. Fairfax’s drummer asked, “Where's Dizzy?” and the name stuck. Gillespie stayed with Fairfax’s band until 1937, when he joined the Teddy Hill band and toured Europe with it. According to one story, he showed up for every rehearsal dressed in hat, gloves and overcoat, and it was Hill who gave him the name “Dizzy.” Hill later said of Gillespie’s antics, “with all his eccentricities and practical jokes, he was the most stable of us all. Diz crazy? Diz was crazy like a fox.”   That stability was the reason why his marriage to Lorraine, whom he met in 1938, lasted his entire life.

Gillespie's earliest recording – as a sideman – occurred in 1937, with Teddy Hill and his NBC Orchestra, when they recorded the single, “King Porter Stomp” b/w “Blue Rhythm Fantasy” on the 17th of May. His next recordings were with Cab Calloway in 1939. He had a brief falling out with Calloway, who accused him of spitballing him while his back to was the band (the real culprits were Jonah Jones and Milt Hinton), and recorded one side (“Hot Mallets”) with Lionel Hampton's band before rejoining Calloway.   He stayed with Calloway into 1941.

All of Gillespie's early recordings have been collected by the French Media 7 label in their Masters of Jazz series of CDs. But collectors who prefer vinyl will pay a pretty penny for his early 10-inch LPs. They include: the 1950 Dial album, Modern Trumpets (LP-212), which goes for $300 to $500, depending on its condition; the 1950 Discovery album, Dizzy Gillespie Plays/Johnny Richards Conducts (Richards was later a major arranger for Stan Kenton) (DL-3013) which fetches $150 to $300; the 1952 Dizzy Gillespie on Dee Gee (LP-1000) which brings the same price; and the two volumes of Dizzy Gillespie on Atlantic (ALR-138 and ALR-142) also issued in 1952 and priced similarly. Dee Gee, by the way, was Gillespie's own label, and that album was reissued in 1957 as a 12-inch LP by Savoy's Regent label as School Days (MG-6043), a copy of which is now worth $40 to $100.

Gillespie's pioneering work on bop in the afterhours clubs of Harlem circa 1940 can be found on the 10-inch Esoteric LP, Dizzy Gillespie with Charlie Christian (ESJ-4) issued in 1953 and worth $100 to $200 – but the recordings, made live on a disc recorder at 78 rpm, are not easy to listen to and can be found more easily on Volume 3 of the Media 7 CD set.

Gillespie's 1940s sides for the MusiCraft label are available on the Savoy LP and CD, Groovin’ High. His other major 1940s work – with his big band – can be found on Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, a 2-CD set. These, with the Media 7 CD set, document his most important period as a musician, but he continued to record throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, dying in January, 1993 of pancreatic cancer.

[Typically, this piece, written when 700 words was my top limit, ends too quickly and abruptly.   Another article could easily have been written about Gillespie’s later career.]

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