Our Friend Dizzy

As readers of Rifftides know by now, The Wall Street Journal provides more than financial news and market reports. The newspaper has a Leisure And Arts section with extensive, varied, informed cultural coverage. It includes writing about music by several contributors. I am happy to be one on occasion. In today’s WSJ, Nat Hentoff brings together his friendship with Dizzy Gillespie and the need to care for sick or injured musicians with little or no health insurance.  

…dying of pancreatic cancer, Dizzy, who had health insurance, said to Francis Forte, his oncologist, and himself a jazz guitarist: “I can’t give you any money, but I can let you use my name. Promise you’ll help musicians less fortunate than I am.” That was the Dizzy I knew, regarded by his sidemen as a teacher and mentor. From that conversation began the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund and the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute at the hospital. By now more than a thousand jazz musicians unable to pay have received a full range of medical and surgical care by Dr. Forte and a network of more than 50 physicians in various specialties, financed by the hospital and donations.

To read the whole thing, go here

Nat’s piece reminded me that Dizzy died fifteen years ago this week. When I got the news, I wrote an op-ed piece. It ran in The Los Angeles Times on January 8, 1993 under the headline, “Our Friend Dizzy.” 

As I write this, Dizzy Gillespie has been dead a few hours and KLON-FM is playing his recordings one after another. I’m sipping a red wine as close as I could find to the one he and I drank a lot of on a fall afternoon of listening and laughter in 1962 in his hotel room in Cleveland. I’m trying to summon the feelings of desolation and loss requisite when a friend and idol dies. 

Thumbnail image for Dizzy Gillespie.jpgBut there’s so much joy in his music, so much of his irrepressible spirit, so much of his foxy wisdom and humor, that John Birks Gillespie won’t allow me to sustain grief for more than a few seconds. At the other end of the phone line, up in Ojai, Gene Lees tells me that after someone called with the news, he stopped working, couldn’t write; a man who’s written yards about Birks, who wrote a book called Waiting For Dizzy

I stare out into the rain, thinking about the next to last time I saw Diz in Los Angeles, backstage at the Universal Amphitheater following a middling concert by his quintet He was standing against a wall, relaxed, leaning on a broomstick loosely covered with bottlecaps, his famous rhythmstick. He shrugged and grinned. The shrug and the grin said, “What the hell, you can’t win ’em all.”

I think about the day I was walking down Broadway in New York and heard his unmistakable voice from the midst of the traffic roar. A car pulled up to the curb. Dizzy got out, bowed low and said, “Get in, please, you’re coming with us.” And we spent a crazy hour touring midtown Manhattan while Birks entertained everyone in and within hearing distance of the car with his descriptions of people, buildings and city life. Over the years, I had a least a dozen such experiences with Dizzy, and each of them had the warmth, spontaneity and unpredictability of his music. Multiply that by the hundreds, probably thousands, of people he treated with the same generosity and affection, and you begin to comprehend the dimesions of love and pleasure he created not only with his music but his being. 

The last time I saw him in L.A., at the Greek Theater, he had just led his big band through two hours of perfection. There were moments that night when his trumpet had the glory, the impossible virtuosity, of the strongest performances of his youth. This time backstage there was a bear hug and a little dance and he said, “Rams, you dog, if I’d known you were out there, I’d have tried to play something.” 

Daz McSkiven Voutzoroony, Slim Gaillard called him. Young trumpet players called him God. “It’s all in Arbans,” all in the famous trumpet exercise book, he used to say when he was asked about his technique. Right. And everything William Faulkner needed was in Webster’s dictionary. Birks and Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, and a few others transformed jazz in the 1940s and the power of their transformation influenced American music in all of its aspects, from pop hits and supermarket Muzak to the tonal values and breathing habits of symphony trumpet sections. Gillespie’s mastery of rhythm has been an inspiration to players of every instrument, including drums. Show me a jazz drummer born after 1920 who doesn’t worship Diz and I’ll leave you to listen to some mediocre drumming. 

Driving home through the storm tonight, I played a new compact disc by a group of musicians including the young trumpeter Tom Williams. As Williams blew phrases Clifford Brown developed after hearing Fats Navarro, who learned from Dizzy, who studied Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong’s great successor, I reflected on the “end of an era” clichés we hear when a great person dies. The end of an era, possibly. But not the end of a tradition. Thanks, Birks. See you in the land of Oobladee.

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  1. Mark Stryker says

    Your memorial for Dizzy is a beautiful character portrait — really captures the warmth, humor and legacy of Dizzy and in such elegantly concise form. Thanks for reprinting it. Regretably, I never got to meet Dizzy and certainly never saw him in his prime — I think he was running for president in the year that I was born, 1963. But I have heard lots of personal stories from Dave Usher, one of Dizzy’s closest friends whom I have gotten to know well here in Detroit. You know Dave? Dizzy’s partner in Dee Gee, produced records for Argo (Moody, Jamal, etc) before entering the family oil reclamation business and then transforming it into Marine Pollution Control, one of the world’s leading oil spil/disaster clean-up companies. They did the Exxon Valdez clean-up among others. Dave put Dizzy on his board and he took the responsibility seriously — coming to Detroit to for all the annual meetings. The idea of Dizzy in that board room is such a fabulous image.
    (Mark Stryker is the music critic of the Detroit Free Press. To read his latest column, go here: http://www.freep.com/article/20090108/COL17/901080322/1098 — DR)

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing your piece when Birks passed, Doug. It reminded me of some other personal moments with him and how absolutely ALIVE he was in every moment.
    A rare human being.