When the Second World War ended, what was deemed a revolution came to jazz. Primarily the inspiration of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, it had an enormous and disorienting effect on jazz musicians and fans alike. Some loved it, some hated it; among the latter were Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, whose animus lay in the fact that they not only couldn't play it, they couldn't even understand it. Contemptuously called "Chinese music" by some, it wasn't helped by the nickname attached to it: bebop, a term that trivialized the music and, to an extent, still does.
So, for that matter, did the nickname given to John Birks Gillespie: Dizzy. His friends, for the most part, called him Birks. He was an extraordinarily funny man, more so onstage than off, where he was, for the most part, thoughtful and serious, and inordinately kind and generous with his knowledge, the great teacher. He once told me, "I don't know that I know that much, but what I do know, I'm willing to share."
He was occasionally -- by younger and militant black musicians -- called an Uncle Tom, but that he was not. He simply loved to be the merry Andrew on stage, not as sycophancy, but because he liked to make people laugh. He once told me, "If making people laugh makes them more receptive to my music, then I'm going to do it, and I don't care what anyone says." By those who knew him well, he was more than liked, more than respected: He was loved.
For all the deserved reverence accorded Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, I believe that Dizzy was the greatest jazz musician who ever lived, and one of the greatest musicians of any kind who ever lived. Dizzy was pure genius, equally dazzling in his powers of invention and execution.
But when in high school in St. Catharines, Ont., I heard my first Parker-Gillespie record -- it was Salt Peanuts, a classic example of the hilarious Dadaism Dizzy scattered to the winds -- I thought they were crazy. Some of my friends, however, did not, especially a young trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler, who went on to become a major figure on his instrument and as a composer. If Kenny took Bird, as Parker was called, and Dizzy seriously, I felt it behooved me to find out what he heard in them. When it hit me, it hit me hard.
Reflections on these and collateral matters have come with the issue within weeks of two things. One is a Gillespie-Parker CD of material largely unissued and unknown, drawn from a concert they did in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945, with Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach or (on two tracks) Sidney Catlett on drums. The CD is on Uptown Records (P.O. Box 394, Whitehall, Mich., 49461, U.S.A.), and that so monumentally important a record could be issued by an almost unknown label, when the major labels are doing almost nothing to the arts but damage, is a tragedy. The other is a biography by Donald L. Maggin, Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie.
It contains some good stuff, especially Maggin's exploration of Dizzy's brutalized childhood and roots, going back to the Yoruba people of Africa. British writer and musician Alyn Shipton's 1999 biography Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie did not uncover this much of Dizzy's family background. He avoided technical discussions the reader would not understand. Maggin does address them, and the result is dismaying. It lies in the author's ignorance of music, music theory and music history. Maggin is neither a journalist nor a musician. In fact, he is a creature of politics; he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Jimmy Carter's presidency.See full review: Dazed by Dizzy