Monday, January 25, 2010

Dizzy Gillespie: Why He's Important

John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie (trumpet; b. 1917 - d. 1993)

Diz's legacy and contribution is felt with almost every musician that performs jazz. Diz, along with Charlie Parker, single-handedly created bebop. But Diz is also responsible for his perfect integration of Latin influences upon jazz. He was the quintessential band leader - always ready to teach and pass on his knowledge to younger musicians. So much so that you can hear the influence on many of Miles Davis early recordings.

Born in South Carolina, Diz taught himself trumpet and trombone in his teens. He paid his dues performing early in bands led by Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, Woody Herman and Teddy Hill. Shortly after, he formed the legendary partnership with Charlie Parker in the 40s and recorded a string of classic albums including one of my all-time favourite jazz albums, Jazz At Massey Hall (Debut Records). During this time he would also introduce audiences to latin percussion during his live performances as heard famously on "A Night In Tunisia". Many of Diz's early recordings are now standards that even the non-jazz fans would recognize at first listen including "Salt Peanuts" "Manteca" and the aforementioned "A Night In Tunisia".

A proficient and vibrant player, Diz always had fun on stage in front his audience. Dizzy Gillespie was a technical genius when it came to his music. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wrote and practiced every note. This, along with his showmanship, are the reasons why he is so important to the growth and explosion of bebop. Live shows were probably the best way to experience the legend.

Some of you may have seen photos of Dizzy with what looks like a upturned trumpet. Most jazz fans known the story, but I'm writing this for those who don't know. One night before a club performance, a dancer triped on it and mangled it. The trumpet still worked and Diz decided to play it anyway. This iconic image is the way most people picture Diz to this day.

There are quite a few individual albums that I could recommend but if you really just want to condense things down you should go head first into Dizzy Diamonds (Verve). Dizzy Diamonds is a three disc set that is broken into "Big Bands", "Small Groups" and "Afro-Cuban". It pretty much covers all you, the new listener, would need.

For those of you who want to seek out more, I would highly suggest digging into some individual albums such as Diz & Bird, The Modern Sextet, Diz & Stan Getz, Sonny Side Up, Birks Works, The Copenhagen Concert and Jazz At Massey Hall for more well rounded experience. Dizzy's legacy lifes on in trumpet players like Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton but none of them will exude the excitement that he did for his craft--one that makes jazz a truly unique art form.

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