Dizzy Gillespie was a musical revolutionary and a charismatic entertainer, high-spirited and highly disciplined, a master trumpeter and a survivor from a jazz generation that lost many of its young. On this edition of Night Lights we’ll hear some of his earliest recordings with bandleaders Teddy Hill, Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway, as well as music from his incendiary 1940s big band and his collaborations with saxophonist Charlie Parker.
In the 1940s a herald of new jazz came blowing in, one of many young musicians who helped bring about the revolution of bebop-but perhaps nobody did it as colorfully as Dizzy Gilespie.
The trumpet-titan-to-be was born John Birks Gillespie on October 21, 1917 in South Carolina, the youngest of nine children. His father died when Gillespie was young, and he eventually moved to Philadelphia, fell under the spell of swing trumpet star Roy Eldridge, and made his way onto the professional jazz scene while he was still a teenager. Though given to comic antics, Gillespie became a highly-disciplined musician and eventual bandleader, whose explosive jubilance grew out of devotion to his craft. “Few trumpeters have ever been blessed with so much technique,” Whitney Balliett would later write:
Gillespie never merely started a solo, he erupted into it… his style at the time gave the impression—with its sharp, slightly acid tone, its cleavered phrase endings, it efflorescence of tones, and its brandishings about in the upper register—of being constantly on the verge of flying apart. However, his playing was held together by his extraordinary rhythmic sense.
Here's the first recorded Dizzy Gillespie solo, made in 1937 with Teddy Hill’s orchestra, and we’ll also hear an early Gillespie composition recorded by Cab Calloway’s popular big band, from which Gillespie was unceremoniously ejected in 1941 after the so-called “spitball incident,” in which Gillespie, known for his on-stage hijinks, was accused of aiming the projectile in question at his bandleader, whose subsequent altercation with the trumpeter ended with a knife wound.
Another example of Gillespie’s rapidly-developing solo style can be heard on a 1939 recording that he made with an all-star group led by vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Years later Hampton claimed that you could already hear the strains of the bebop to come in Gillespie’s playing on this recording of “Hot Mallets":
These early snapshots of Gillespie’s evolving style can only prepare us slightly for what we hear from the early 1940s on—the kinetic burst of bebop in full flight, and Gillespie, along with the young bassist Oscar Pettiford, helped lead the way with a historically significant gig at the Onyx Club in New York City that began in late 1943. Because of the early 1940s recording ban, this group never got a chance to record, but in 1995 a rough-but-audible acetate surfaced of them performing Gillespie’s landmark composition “A Night In Tunisia,” said to have been written one night on the back of a garbage lid as Gillespie stood in an alley outside a club. Here's Gillespie doing "Tunisia" in 1945 with saxophonist Charlie Parker and a young Max Roach on drums:
Gillespie’s most significant early musical partnership was with Parker, who crossed paths with the trumpeter several times in the early 1940s, most notably during stints in Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine’s big bands. A whole program could easily be devoted to the bop alchemy of Gillespie and Parker; here are two examples, starting with “Shaw Nuff":
Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker performing “Dizzy Atmosphere” in concert in 1947, with John Lewis on piano, Al McKibbon on bass, and Joe Harris on drums. Gillespie and Parker before that on “Shaw Nuff,” with Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.
With all of the fire of the bebop revolution, Gillespie was also proving his prowess with a ballad. In 1945 he recorded a Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin song that had already been used as a vehicle by trumpeter Bunny Berigan; Gillespie put his own long-lasting stamp on “I Can’t Get Started”:
In 1945 Gillespie put together his first big band and took it on a tour of the segregated South, but black audiences failed to respond to the orchestra’s modernistic influence. The following year Gillespie put together another ensemble that brought on board talented young musicians like vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Kenny Clarke, who all would go on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as saxophonist James Moody and pianist Thelonious Monk. Jazz critic Ira Gitler compared hearing this band live to “getting hit by Joe Louis in the solar plexus”:
Though this band was grounded in the progressive developments of bebop, it also began to highlight less substantial vocal numbers, in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Gillespie’s manager Billy Shaw also marketed the band’s bop image, promoting the trumpeter’s trademark beret and glasses as part of a hipster craze—and to some extent, this campaign succeeded. Musically, Gillespie’s big band got extra spark from percussionist Chano Pozo, who helped push the music in the direction of Afro-Cuban jazz. Pozo was killed in a drug deal gone bad in Harlem in 1948, but his contribution to the evolution of Latin jazz was immense. We’ll hear him in the next two selections, beginning with one he helped write- Dizzy Gillespie and “Manteca,” on Night Lights:
As the 1940s wound down, big bands of all musical styles ran into financial challenges. Even the inclusion of bop novelty and jump-blues, R-and-B-oriented songs could not stave off collapse for Gillespie’s orchestra, and by 1950 he was operating in a small-group format again, with Milt Jackson still on vibes and a young, unknown saxophonist named John Coltrane. He also started his own label, Dee Gee Records, based in Detroit, with the assistance of a young fan named Dave Usher. Gillespie’s Dee Gee releases featured some jump-blues and vocal-novelty numbers similar to some of his big-band repertoire that aimed for commercial success, but it also included some standout performances of Gillespie originals. Here’s Dizzy Gillespie and a composition he co-wrote with Chano Pozo, “Tin Tin Deo":
The Dizzy Gillespie Sextet performing his composition “Birks Works” and before that, a collaboration with Chano Pozo,” “Tin Tin Deo,” with John Coltrane on saxophone, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Milt Jackson on vibes and piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kansas Fields on drums.
Dee Gee Records folded in 1953, a victim of distribution problems and other issues stemming from Dave Usher’s managerial inexperience. In retrospect, this could be seen as marking the end of the first and most innovative period of Gillespie’s career; but there was still much more to come. We close out this edition of Night Lights with the best-selling record the Dee Gee label released, a Gillespie composition that would stay in his book for the rest of his long and storied career… Dizzy Gillespie and “The Champ,” on Night Lights: