The 20th Century’s Most Underrated Jazz Musician
by Mark Ruffin
As periodicals around the country published their best of lists this decade/century/millenium-ending season last month, many of the names topping the influential music lists were the same. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis are some of the names rightfully being touted as the top musicians in jazz.
One great name that might be missing from other lists that will not go neglected here is John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. While he will surely get a lot of consideration when lumped together with all those other great names, Gillespie will probably not top many lists for his massive contributions, but I think Diz was the 20th century’s most underrated musician.
“I think I share those feelings on Dizzy entirely,” said Alyn Shipton, author of a brand new book titled Groovin’ High-The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, the first book on the trumpeter since his mid 80’s autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop. “Just think of those Muppet shows he did, where millions of kids saw him on that, and he was jazz to them, no question. My generation probably grew up thinking the same thing about Louis Armstrong, but as far as my kids are concerned, Dizzy was jazz.”
The legacy of Gillespie certainly extends beyond a generation of post-baby boomers who saw him on a kid show, and Generation X’ers who know him through Diz, a caricature on the animated show Tiny Toons.. But it is his effect on world music and the current crop of young jazz stars that solidifies the argument that 100 years from now, historians may well crown Dizzy the most influential jazz man of the 20th century.
“I think Dizzy’s contribution to world music is fantastically important too,” said the thick accented Englishman who also does a jazz show for the British Broadcasting Company. “His United Nations Orchestra drew together so much stuff, and of course he was involved so much earlier with Chano Pozo in the 40’s, but it’s the way it all came together in those last five or six years of Dizzy’s life.
“That was a fantastically exciting band, and you still hear those influences in those young players involved,” Shipton continued. “If you talk to someone like (pianist) Danilo Perez, he’ll tell you (playing with Dizzy) was the crowning moment of his musical career.”
Like a world class marathoner approaching the finish line, Dizzy put a kick into his final years with the United Nations Jazz Orchestra, a star studded aggregation that featured veterans and newcomers playing Latin jazz in a big band, two formats pioneered by the great trumpeter. He was among the first, if not the first, American jazzman to mix jazz with music from Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and the regions of central and coastal Africa. Not to mention that he forecasted, as far back at the early 50’s, what is now generally considered world music.
Big band music was already an established form in the late 30’s when Dizzy arrived in Philadelphia from Cheraw, South Carolina, including the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman. It was his historic apprenticeship in the big bands of Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine that taught him the discipline, shrewdness, and the necessary showmanship it takes to keep a large group of musicians together.
His first big group in the late 40’s wasn’t a huge financial success, but it was the first big band to incorporate be-bop and will go down in history as the group that spawned John Coltrane and the original Modern Jazz Quartet. The Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of the 50’s gave a young man named Quincy Jones his first real opportunities, and was the very first jazz group to travel under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. At the time of his death in January of 1993, he was the last jazz legend leading his own big band.
It is that reach of Gillespie into the next century that will ensure his legacy ad infinitum. Because he was significantly younger than Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and stayed away from drugs, unlike Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Gillespie was able to outlive them and contribute to the first third of the 90’s. He was able to school and help nurture 21st century trumpet stars like Roy Hargrove, and Nicholas Payton, and record and perform with other young lions like Branford Marsalis and Antonio Hart.
With the United Nations Jazz Orchestra, his impact on the next decade, if not the century, will be incalculable. The aforementioned, Danilo Perez, easily one of the top young names in jazz, was a member, as was Steve Turre, Ignacio Berroa, John Lee, Ed Cherry, Giovanni Hildalgo, and his two main protégés; Jon Faddis and Arturo Sandoval. All of whom, barring bad health, will be spreading what the gospel of Dizzy well in the 21st century.
Of course, it will be as one of the founders of be-bop where the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie will be written about most as the century closes. Even there, Charlie Parker, a man he outlived by nearly 40 years and whose recording output is an nth of Gillespie’s, overshadows him.
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote a book about Dizzy,” commented Shipton. “In his book, To Be Or Not To Bop,” Dizzy downplays his own importance in the development of be-bop and plays up the importance of Charlie “Bird” Parker. That may have been the right thing to do at the time, but I think that history needed somebody to say ‘hang on a minute, Dizzy was equally as important and his role was to organize the music and to transfer it to big bands.
“Dizzy was the great teacher,” Shipton continued. “He managed somehow to draw the ideas the he and Bird and everybody had, and pass them on to other generations.”
One of the most overlooked aspects of Dizzy Gillespie’s career was his foray into the record business and pop music. Today, it is quite common for a jazz musician to own a record company and/or cross over musically, but when Dizzy started his Detroit based Dee Gee Records and started playing jump r&b music in the early 50’s, he was one of the first. It was a controversial move at the time, and according to Shipton, it was a sad time for the great trumpeter, part of which came about when Parker chastised Gillespie in a national magazine.
“Bird said, ‘Dizzy has sold out. Our music involves a different way of thinking about rhythm,” said Shipton, who features these historic correspondences in his book. “Dizzy wrote a counter blast in the magazine where he said, ‘I think that we need to make the beat recognizable to people who will learn how to dance to this music and how to hear what’s going on.’ And Dizzy’s immediate knee-jerk reaction was to go and start to play this slightly r&b kind of jump stuff. Even then, he was playing the most incredible trumpet. He had a way of tackling the backbeat rhythms and the whole feeling of r&b, and float over it with the trumpet.
“I have the feeling that that wasn’t a very happy time in his career. He was desperately sad when the first big band had to break up in 1950 and I think he had to try to think about what he was going to do next, and he took a very different tact from Bird or from Miles in doing r&b.”
Of all the singles that Dizzy put out on Dee Gee Records, which are now available on Savoy Records, Shipton says ‘The Champ, Part 1 & 2, featuring Art Blakey, is the best and should be considered a masterpiece. He also said Dee Gee was a bit ahead of their time in that less than ten years later, Detroit, was the focal point of modern r&b music.
Shipton was less than kind, however, on the subject of Dizzy’s 1984 pop effort Closer To The Source. The record, which featured the trumpeter with Stevie Wonder, Branford Marsalis, the late Kenny Kirkland and a marvelous vocalist named Angel Rodgers, was plastered in the jazz press, but for this writer, was one of the most underrated pop/jazz albums of the 80’s.
“I do have to be honest,” Shipton said defending the album he called a “one off disaster” in his book. “I just can’t say it’s good, just because it’s Dizzy or anybody else. I feel that anything he did afterwards with the United Nations Orchestra synthesizes the ideas that was going on in Closer To The Source in a setting that really works for him. I felt Closer To The Source was an uneasy setting and for me just doesn’t do it and I listen to any and everything.
“That being said,” he continued, “I don’t think Closer To The Source was a sheer cynical attempt to make money. The thing that occurs a lot in Dizzy life is his trying to work with and draw from another generation of musicians. I think that’s why the United Nations Orchestra was so successful in that he really connected with the musicians of Danilo’s generation in a two-way street. I feel, perhaps, Closer To The Source is a one-way street. It didn’t effect the way that Dizzy played, whereas I hear a distinct change in Dizzy’s playing (with the United Nations Orchestra) in the last years. I hear all sort of things that weren’t there early on.”
While Shipton had divergent views when it comes to one album, he clearly comes together with me in considering Dizzy Gillespie the 20th century’s most underrated musician.