The Life of Dizzy Gillespie
By Alyn Shipton
Oxford University Press,
422 pages, $30
reviewed by David Simpson
Black beret, horn-rimmed glasses, tidy goatee, gigantically out-puffed cheeks, muted trumpet with upswept bell: surely there is no image more immediately or widely recognized as an icon of jazz—and especially of the jazz style known as bebop—than that of John Birks Gillespie, the virtuoso horn player better known as Dizzy.
Born on October 21, 1917, Gillespie rose from poverty and obscurity in the hick Dixie backwater of Cheraw, South Carolina, to gain worldwide fame as a musical innovator and jazz superstar. His story has been told before, in two previous biographies and most notably (if unreliably) in his own colorful and anecdotal memoir, To Be or Not to Bop (1980). The usual rendition is this: that for all his skill, showmanship, originality, and charisma, Dizzy was essentially a secondary figure in the history of bebop; the clown prince during Charlie Parker’s unchallenged kingship, a free-spirited acolyte to Bird’s demonic high priest.
To a certain extent, even Dizzy himself contributed to this interpretation, often conceding the lead role in the evolution of modern jazz to the high-soaring Bird. (Of course the chief proponent of this view has undoubtedly been Ross Russell, whose hip, poetic, eulogizing biography of Parker, Bird Lives!, remains one of bop history’s most influential, if suspect, documents.)
Now along comes British jazz writer Alyn Shipton with a new twist on the standard narrative. The primary force behind the origin, development, and eventual triumph of bop, Shipton argues, was not Parker but Gillespie. It was Dizzy who provided the necessary leadership, discipline, and focus to a movement that was inherently individualistic, centrifugal, and diffuse. It was Dizzy, Shipton claims, who supplied both artistic theory and practical direction.
While the moody, intuitive Parker (and similarly gifted artists like Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell) effectively defined the new music with their edgy personalities and playing style; it was the sociable, pragmatic, and analytic Dizzy who provided the brainwork, legwork, organizing skills, and marketing know-how required to bring it fully to life.
Most importantly, it was Dizzy who supplied avant-garde jazz with a coherent intellectual framework and rationale, in effect transforming a seemingly random collection of musician’s tricks (fractured rhythms, flurries of notes played at super-fast tempos, flatted fifths, etc.) into a fully articulated scheme of chord changes, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic variations. Through Gillespie’s efforts, bebop became not just a style, but a fully developed musical system. With Diz himself as its impresario and mastermind.
In stressing this point, Shipton effectively demolishes the view that bebop was an art of pure improvisation—as if Diz and company simply played, instinctively and spontaneously, whatever came into their minds. Nor is it true that all the theory and written arrangements were merely window dressing, a body of ideas cooked up and laid on afterwards to make it look like the music had a deep structure and plan.
Instead, as Shipton persuasively documents (and as many of Dizzy’s former sidemen have testified), at a very early stage in its development Dizzy already had bebop down to a science. It was as if he carried an entirely new jazz paradigm and unwritten repertoire around in his head.
As a result, whether he was working a jam session, recording session, concert, or club date, Dizzy uniquely grasped the full design and direction of an improvised piece of music from the first moment of its being performed. While the other players hadn’t a clue as to what was taking shape, Diz understood perfectly, and he could take each player aside, chart everything out for him, and explain it all in full detail. It was for this reason that trumpeter Luke Garrett, who liked to compare jazz to auto racing, referred to Gillespie as “a complete player and a complete musician.” Dizzy was a world-class racer, master mechanic, car owner, pit crew chief, and champion auto-builder all in one.
Shipton is religiously accurate and a stickler for details. Hence he is at his best when dispelling old legends or digging up new facts. For instance, he shows by strict chronology and research that it was Louis Armstrong, not Roy Eldridge, who was the original influence on Gillespie’s playing style. And he argues convincingly that bop wasn’t invented at Minton’s (the New York club famous for its late-night jam sessions and policy of No Dancing, Serious Listening Only), but only showcased there. (Shipton’s own plausible view is that bop was invented on the buses and in the backstage dressing rooms of the early 40s big bands.)
Nothing if not thorough, Shipton is admirably scrupulous in his scholarship and very finicky about getting his facts straight. In effect, he has written an old-fashioned “laundry list” type of biography, long on dates and influences and spiced with the usual gossip (mostly recycled stuff about Dizzy’s celebrated scuffles and habitual womanizing).
Unfortunately, Shipton is not exactly the most exciting stylist or storyteller around. For one thing, he has an annoying habit of describing his own research procedures (including details about where or how he collected specific items of information) in his text rather than in a discrete, out-of-the-way footnote or endnote. This practice creates a snail-like narrative pace and at times makes it seem like the diligent author rather than the trail-blazing jazz artist is the real subject of the book.
Shipton also demonstrates the time-honored academic vice of over-explaining and has a pedantic tendency to quibble over trivia or include completely obvious or needless information. For example, how many readers need to be informed that Al Capone had a “wholesale involvement in corruption and violence”? (p. 108). Does anyone (outside of Jazz for Dummies) need to be told—in a special, bracketed note, no less—that Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Yardbird”? Will any reader be surprised to learn that in his personal interviews Gillespie wasn’t always completely reliable about dates? As they say in many places in New York (though apparently not at Oxford Press): Duh.
All in all, Shipton has produced a very valuable and persuasive piece of jazz history but a comparatively dull and lifeless portrait of Dizzy Gillespie. All the names, dates, and places are in order; all the empirical facts of Dizzy’s life have been carefully laid out. But Dizzy himself—the vivid, high-energy personality and the transcendent jazz artist—is scarcely to be found. Readers seeking that real, that essential Dizzy, are encouraged to look elsewhere: in the CD store, for starters, and in Diz’s own rollicking memoir To Be or Not to Bop.