Friday, November 2, 2007

An Appreciation of Dizzy Gillespie

I just ran across an interesting appreciation of Dizzy Gillespie (on what would have been his 90th birthday) by Doug Levine in Contacto magazine. I encountered it serendipitously: I was doing a news search for articles on the Middle East, including Tunisia, and this article popped up because of its mention of the Gillespie song “A Night in Tunisia.”

For what it’s worth, I’d like to add my own appreciation of Gillespie. He’s certainly not a forgotten or unappreciated figure in the history of jazz or western music in general – with his chipmunk cheeks and distinctive 45 degree trumpet bell, his is one of the most recognizable images in jazz history.

Still, I think an argument could be made that his significance has been underappreciated, and that he’s been taken a bit less seriously than some of his contemporaries.

He was an important jazz innovator, particularly for his contributions to the creation of bebop in the 1940s and Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1950s, though here his reputation is often overshadowed by that of bebop co-creator Charlie Parker or later innovators like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He was important in maintaining the vitality of the jazz big band in the 1950s, though here he’s often overshadowed by Duke Ellington, who continued to be the biggest name in big band, or the collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans. He was an important jazz songwriter, though here often overshadowed again by Ellington, but also Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and others. Where he’s gotten the most due credit is with regard to his individual virtuosity on the trumpet (other names may be mentioned as equals here, but rarely have I encountered arguments to the effect that so-and-so was a more virtuosic talent than Gillespie) and as a popularizer and ambassador for the music.

What’s most amazing about Gillespie is that he was all these things at once and at the height of his career – an important innovator, band leader, songwriter, virtuosic soloist, and popularizer and good will ambassador for jazz.

What his career lacked was a touch of the legendary or a heavy dose of pathos – and it does seem that jazz legends are supposed to be tragic figures. While the quality of their music speaks for itself and is in little need of elaboration, Parker, Davis, or Coltrane are jazz legends in large part because of the narratives associated with them, the personal battles of each with drug addiction, the too early deaths of Parker and Coltrane, the at-times prickly personality of Davis, etc. Gillespie was, as far as I can tell, a universally loved figure, but given a general lack of pathos and the tragic in his public personal narrative, alongside his stage persona as affable (and admittedly at times corny) entertainer, he’s treated less seriously by many jazz fans than Parker, Davis, Coltrane, and others.

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