photo © Lee Tanner
Lee Tanner’s 1963 photograph captures two of the images long associated with Dizzy Gillespie — his ballooned-out cheeks and bent horn. To hear a piece of music that characterizes his musical sound, listen to Night in Tunesia .
Cab Calloway, in whose band Dizzy Gillespie once played, said of Gillespie, “Musically, the most important facet of Dizzy’s playing is not just his rhythm, harmony, chord changes or his technical facility alone. It’s the whole thing. Knowing that horn, he can do anything with it.” He knew his horn so well that the sounds coming from it helped reshape the musical landscape — and the audience for it.
To those who love this music and the fascinating culture associated with it, Dizzy Gillespie was indeed jazz music’s “ambassador.” He projected creativity, ambition, personality, and, unlike many in his field, sensibility. His influence on music is well documented, and his style — framed by dark glasses, goatee and beret — set the tone for an entire generation searching for a definition of “hip.”
Saxophonist James Moody, whose significant achievements include employment in a variety of Gillespie’s best groups, and journalist Nat Hentoff, whose chronicles on jazz during Gillespie’s era were the benchmarks of his craft, remember Dizzy and his remarkable life with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a March 19, 2004 conversation.
Saxophonist James Moody joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1946, initiating a lifelong association that provided him with worldwide exposure and recognition. While with Gillespie, he traveled for the State Department, played at the White House, and developed an intimate, personal friendship. His signature song, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” is an improvisation on the chord progressions of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and is considered a masterpiece of improvisation. His most recent recording, Homage, is on the Savoy Jazz label.
Among the country’s most revered journalistic voices, Hentoff has been commenting on American culture, politics and justice since becoming editor of Downbeat magazine in 1953, a post he held for four years. He has written countless books, including many on jazz. Among the publications Hentoff has frequentely contributed to include the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Jazz Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the New Republic.
photo ©Jeff Sedlik, 1992
Dizzy Gillespie, 1917 – 1993
JJM As an introduction to our conversation on the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, I would like to read two quotes that help define his creative and spiritual genius. The first is by the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who said of Dizzy, “This is what Dizzy has contributed to the world of music – his own style. And that is one of the hardest things to do in music, to be an individual stylist I saw him developing a style from the early forties until now. And he has not changed, spiritually, from the time I met him up until now. And this is one great thing I admire in him. That he has maintained dignity and discipline as a jazz musician, as a trumpet player, and as a man.” Nat, you wrote of Dizzy, “He always had a vivid presence. Like they used to say of Fats Waller, whenever Dizzy came into a room, he filled it. He made people feel good, and he was the sound of surprise, even when his horn was in his case.”
NH Well, part of that was because Dizzy was one of the most generous people I have ever known. He had a spirit that enveloped you, and it was such a pleasure just to be in his presence.
JJM When did the two of you first hear Dizzy’s music?
JM The first time I ever heard Diz was when I was in the Air Force, stationed in Greensboro, North Carolina — I believe it was a recording with him and Charlie Parker. During that era, a billion records didn’t come out like today, there were only a few. There may have been a Dorsey recording, and maybe one from Basie, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman. Very few records would be released during the course of a year. Because of that, you could really spend time with a recording and latch on to the artist, and as soon as I heard Charlie Parker on record, I knew that is what I wanted to do with my life.
JJM Do you remember what the recording was?
JM Well, it might have been “Now’s the Time,” and it might have been “Salt Peanuts.” I remember the first time I heard “Salt Peanuts,” I said to myself, “How can they play that fast?” When I eventually ended up playing with Diz, we played it even faster.
JJM Nat, do you remember the first time you heard Dizzy?
NH The first time I heard him on record was when he was with Cab Calloway, and he really sparked that band. The first time I heard him live was at the Hi Hat in Boston, which was where the modern jazz players like Parker performed. There was really no one like him. Within the first two bars of a recording, you immediately know it is Dizzy, because he has what David Murray calls a “signature sound,” like Moody himself has. It is one of the signs of a real jazz master.
JJM Nat, in reviewing one of the 1954 Birdland appearances with Gillespie, Hank Mobley, Charlie Persip, Wade Legge and Lou Hackney, you described them as “adequate, but hardly up to Dizzy.” You said Dizzy was “at the peak of his powers as a soloist — his ideas when he’s concentrating on playing are mindful of an exceptionally adventurous firework display.”
NH Well, I was wrong. He didn’t hit the peak of his powers then, he kept hitting them year after year after year.
JJM Were either of you in New York during the time Parker and Gillespie were playing together?
NH Well, I came to New York in 1953, and the buzz was there. It was an interesting time because there was quite a civil war going on among the so-called critics — much more so than among the musicians. The traditionalists, known then as “moldy figs,” thought that jazz had stopped if not with Louis Armstrong, then not too long after. The music of Parker, Dizzy and the young Miles Davis was not even considered jazz at all by many of the writers. But that sort of argument has always gone on. As a critic, you have to listen to whom the musicians are listening to in order to find out what is going on.
JM Don’t misunderstand, I am not against what critics do, but Phil Woods once told me an interesting story I frequently recall. He was on the bandstand playing one night, and an audience member called out, “Man, you are not playing anything new. You sound like Charlie Parker.” Phil handed him his saxophone and said, “Here, you sound like Charlie Parker.” All I am saying is that I don’t have a license to criticize anyone unless I can do exactly what they do. If I can do it, then I have a license to criticize. You know what I mean?
JM I won’t go so far as to say that just because they don’t play an instrument they shouldn’t be a critic, but I am saying they should be very careful about what they say.
NH Sure, you have to be careful because you are dealing not only with the music but how the band makes a living. I don’t always like doing criticism. In one of the Jerry Jazz Musician conversations with the critic Gary Giddins, he referred to me not as a critic, but as a “shrewd chronicler,” and that is probably accurate. I have done many record album liner notes over the years, but I won’t do them without first talking to the musician. I had long talks with the likes of John Coltrane and Dizzy before writing liner notes for their albums. In fact, there was a familiar routine I had with Coltrane, where I would call him up and say that I was hired to write liner notes for his new recording, and he would say, “I wish you wouldn’t, because if the music doesn’t speak for itself, what is the point?” I would respond by saying, “But John, it’s a gig.” Being the generous man that he was, he would say, “Ok, what do you want to know?”
JM The critics used to knock him big time, saying things like he was playing wrong notes, and now look how it has turned around. Today, critics are saying that the people who don’t play like John Coltrane are the ones out to lunch, primarily because they don’t want to be wrong like their predecessors were with Coltrane.
NH And Coltrane was really hurt by that criticism. I have rarely known anyone, in any field of expression, who constantly sought to enhance his art, and to have critics put him down the way they did was hard for him. A critic once used the term “sheets of sound” to describe his music, which wasn’t meant to be very complimentary. But after a while, after hearing him with Miles and all those extraordinary groups of his own, it became obvious what an extraordinary talent he was. The bass player Art Davis used to tell me that when he worked with Coltrane, it was not uncommon for people to shout and cheer at the conclusion of one of their forty-five minute numbers as if they were in a church service. He really reached people, as did Dizzy, of course, in his way.
JM Diz never had a hit record, but he worked constantly. He made his mark on the people. No matter where we were in the world, people recognized him. For example, we would be in some obscure little airport anywhere in Europe, and people would stare at him, and after a while, come over and ask for an autograph. Often they would bring a child over to him, and Dizzy would put his finger up to his lips and turn his cheeks into a balloon. They would really get a kick out of that.
NH Before we go any further, I want to say here that Dizzy once said that playing with James Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself. And that was quite a tribute Now, I have a question for you, Moody. The pianist Hank Jones and other musicians have told me that Dizzy was generous in sharing ideas with them. He played the piano a lot to work out his own ideas about what chords could do and what you could do in terms of changing them, and apparently he volunteered to help people with their own work. Did you have that experience with him too?
JM Before I answer that, Nat, I want to thank you very kindly for reminding me about how Diz felt about me. I know that he said it, yet I am still overwhelmed hearing it again, because, Diz was something else.
Concerning him assisting other musicians, no matter who it was, he would frequently have suggestions for them. When we went to a gig, while many of the musicians would go backstage and change, the first thing Diz would do was go to the piano and start playing something. He would try to figure out something he was working on or improve on something he had heard. Diz was a teacher from the standpoint that if he played something and you asked him what it was, he would bring you to the piano and explain it. He knew the importance of the piano. Long ago, while pointing to a piano, he told me, “Moody, this is it, right here.” He felt that if a player knows the piano, then he will know what the trombones are doing, what the trumpets are doing, and what the saxophones are doing, because every instrument is right there on the piano. And he was right; it is there. Many of the great musicians know something about the piano, because, as Diz said, that is where everything is.
NH So he really thought like an orchestra, the way Duke Ellington did.
JM Yes, he knew that everything was there. Cedar Walton recently told me that he loves to write, and that because he is a piano player it is easier for him because all he as to do is just copy the notes.
NH Dizzy said something to me once that I would be interested in your reaction to. He described Bird as the most fantastic musician he ever heard, and said that he was a “deep blues” player. He went on to say that while he could play the blues, he couldn’t play them the way Bird did. Does that make sense to you?
JM Oh yes, and that comes out in some of the recordings he did with Jay McShann. I listen to those and I get the chills.
NH We were talking earlier about the generosity and spirit of Dizzy, and one of my favorite stories about him involves one of the tours he made for the State Department, as an “ambassador for democracy.” While his band was in Turkey, they were going to play a concert at the residence of the American ambassador. On the other side of the fence bordering the property, several young fans wanted to get in so they could hear the performance. A couple of them even tried to climb the fence but were thrown back, and upon seeing this, Dizzy told the ambassador that there wouldn’t be any concert unless he allowed them to come in.
JM Yes, that sure sounds like something he would have done.
JJM Among the many things Dizzy was known for was his sense of humor. According to the writer Gene Lees, Dizzy felt that if he could do anything to “set a sympathetic mood in an audience, for his music, he would do it, and if humor would accomplish that end, he had no intention of giving it up.” Can you share a story involving his wit?
NH The thing about wit and humor is that you can’t fake it. If you don’t have it, you can’t use it. Dizzy’s sense of humor was natural, and his idea of making the audience feel comfortable by being humorous was just a natural part of his whole personality. Fats Waller was like that. You could talk to him off the stand and he would still break you up.
JM Yes, Diz was a funny cat, period. And he was Dizzy like a fox.
NH The other thing is that he left a legacy of two kinds. One legacy of course is his music, and passing his love of it to the many musicians who learned from him, as well as the untold numbers of people all over the world whose lives were enriched by him. But another legacy of his must be told. When he was dying of cancer at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, he told his internist, Dr. Frank Forte, that he wanted to do something for musicians who couldn’t afford the type of care he was receiving. The result is that through the Jazz Foundation of America, in the Dizzy Gillespie Institute at Englewood Hospital, surgeons often operate on jazz musicians for free. Through his vision, even after his passing, he is not only keeping the music alive, but he is keeping musicians alive as well.
JJM That’s a great legacy, for sure.
JM When thinking about his wit, listening to Nat talk about Englewood Hospital makes me remember a funny line of Dizzy’s. While he was sick, Dizzy told those of us around him, “I am too famous to die.”
NH I would sometimes call Dizzy up and I would hear Lorraine — his wife of many years — in the background. Overhearing their domestic conversations would often remind me of my own. I have been married more than once, and I remember asking Dizzy how come his marriage has lasted so long, aside from the fact that they so obviously like each other. He said, “Over the years I have learned something very important. Whenever Lorraine has something critical to say, I say, ‘Yes, Dear. Yes, Dear,’ and that keeps her happy for a long time.”
JM Yes, he was a very funny man. I remember being over at their house during a time he was pretty upset about something regarding Lorraine. He told me how sick of all this stuff he was, and that this time he is going to tell her exactly who she is messing with. I called him on it and said you aren’t going to do anything, and he said, “Oh yes I am. Just you watch!” At that moment, Lorraine happened to come around the corner and all he could bring himself to say to her, in a light, sing-song voice was, “Oh. Hi Lorraine.” But, if it wasn’t for Lorraine, boy, he would have been messed up. She took care of all the business and kept everything straight.
NH That’s right, and he told me that she kept him straight too, because, the scene at that time was full of temptations. Knowing that she was there was good for him. She was like the Rock of Gibraltar.
JJM There are a variety of explanations about how his trumpet got bent, and none of them seem especially believable. What is the true story about that?
NH Moody probably knows the true story about that. All I remember was the explanation that somebody sat on it, but you are right, that explanation seems implausible considering how hard it would be to bend that trumpet.
JM The story he told me was that it happened during a birthday party he was having for Lorraine. The comedians Stump and Stumpy were fooling around during intermission when one of them fell on his trumpet, bending it. When Dizzy saw the bent condition of the horn, he was concerned that if he tried to bend it back it would come off completely, so he figured he would play it the way it was. And when he played it, he loved the way it sounded. Consequently, he contacted one of the instrument companies and made them make a horn for him.
JJM It was said that he even wanted to patent the idea and mass market the design but someone had patented it long before…
JM I don’t know anything about that.
NH Well, that sounds like Dizzy the fox. At one time, he told me he could hear himself better when playing a bent horn.
JJM Yes, on this very subject in Downbeat, Nat, you wrote of the four tangible benefits of Dizzy’s upturned horn; “1. Acoustically, the sound is more pleasing in a club. You don’t blow straight at the customers. The sound gets up into the air and spreads; 2. With the bell not in the way, the new horn makes reading much easier for the player; 3. The trumpeter now can really hear himself. Before, when he played fast, Dizzy says, it seemed to him that more notes went by him than he could hear; 4. Tone is improved, he says.”
NH Oh yes, I remember that. Something else I want to say about Dizzy. It involves a quote of his that I have used a lot, something I feel is quite profound — and not just for musicians. He told me, “It took me all my life to know what notes not to play.” I am indebted to him for this because whenever I write I remember that.
JM Yes, I remember him saying that as well, that it took him all this time to remember what note to leave out.
NH Yes, that’s right.
JM You know what he used to do? I would be in a hotel in Sweden or somewhere like that and I would get a call, and the operator would inform me that I had a long distance call. On the other line was a person with an exaggerated high pitched voice saying, “Hello. Is this Moody? Oh, Moody, I love you so.” And I would say, “Oh Dizzy. How did you know it was me?” He would pull silly stuff like that all the time.
NH Well, speaking of “Dizzy the fox,” etcetera, I recall walking down Broadway in New York one day, and he came along with a big grin, and I asked him why he was smiling. He told me that he had just come from the offices of Billy Shaw, who was a big booker of jazz talent in those days, and Dizzy said, “I told him that he works for me. I told him I don’t work for you!” And that changed their relationship to Dizzy’s advantage.