A Hologram of Dizzy Gillespie

A Hologram of Dizzy Gillespie

by Stuart Broomer
Copyright © 1995, 1998 Stuart Broomer

In the Ontario Science Centre there is a hologram of Dizzy Gillespie. As you enter a room, you pass a hanging acrylic plate with an almost life-size image of head, shoulders, chest and arms. As you move, the image moves. Dizzy smiles, lifts his bent trumpet to his lips, inflates his cheeks, takes the horn from his lips, smiles. Repeat the movement and he smiles, lifts his bent trumpet to his lips, inflates his cheeks, takes the horn from his lips, smiles . . . You get, so to speak, the picture.

Reverse your movement and a hint of sorrow seems to flicker quickly across the lips as Dizzy lowers the trumpet and his neck deflates in a slightly mysterious way. Somewhere, in the hundreds of vertical images that artist Mark Diamond used to compose the white light reflection hologram, Gillespie looks like he might have been tricked.

A note explains how the illusions of three dimensionality and movement are achieved. It's a perfectly named technology, not only whole but also hollow, a kind of miracle of absence.

Who, some viewers might ask in the instant that their attention is arrested, is Dizzy Gillespie? The reply comes tripping to the page. He is, of course, the man in the black and white billboard and bus shelter advertisements for Gapp clothing, an old black man possessed of a graciously worn face and a smile that is warm, wise, and whimsical. The use of such a model wasrevolutionary. In the hologram he wears a red velvet shirt and has a chunky gold medallion around his neck.

More? He was a trumpet player born in 1917, who in the 1940s was at the forefront of a revolutionary style called bebop, the first form of jazz to be called "modern." It was epitomized by Gillespie, its only practitioner to gain any wide popular acceptance. The style was characterized by berets, hornrim glasses, zoot suits (with oversized jackets and broadly draped pants with tight cuffs), and tiny goatees, sometimes pasted in the valley below the lower lip.

Gillespie was responsible for all of that, and his visual signature was a trumpet with the bell twisted sharply upward, the horn enshrined in the hologram. The horn was his "hook," as much a part of him as the handkerchief was a part of Louis Armstrong. The trumpet was bent and John Birks Gillespie was "Dizzy."

When he played, his cheeks blew up like a puffer fish, until he looked like a man playing a trumpet with a basketball in his mouth. It made his facility even more impressive, and it was the kind of visual surprise that could ultimately lead to a hologram. Only Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with three saxophones stuffed in his mouth, ever achieved anything close to the same effect. As a result, Kirk's likeness can be found in No Hope comic books and on the cover of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Reverie.

Gillespie was to bebop what Armstrong was, before him, to jazz, and, perhaps, what Mary Quant was after him to the mini-skirt. As "Satchmo" had, Dizzy sang, but he sang something called scat, a high speed vocal bebop made up of nonsensesyllables and decontextualized phrases (like "Salt Peanuts"). He was, simply, outlandish, but gifted with a personality and virtuosity that somehow made him non-threatening. A nick-name like "Dizzy" will do that for you.

Fashions would change, however, and Gillespie gradually ceded his position to Miles Davis, who favored elegant suits by Italian designers. Davis's habit of turning his back to audiences brought special attention to the refined lines of his apparel. Unlike "Satchmo" and "Dizzy," Davis hardly ever seemed to smile. His mouth favored the hard, dramatic, horizontal line of minimalism, and he certainly didn't sing.

Gillespie would follow his popularity into politics, making tours under the auspices of the State Department. Later, he would become an unofficial candidate for President of the United States, on what might have been called the hipster ticket. This was during the years after socialists had given up running and before it became popular for comedians and pigs and old actors to enter the fray. It was benign and harmless fun, also a matter of style, the ironic jibe of a happy minority, and a tribute to Gillespie's humor. No one would want Charlie Parker or Miles Davis to be president.

Now style has done something else for him. It has turned him into a face, a visual trace, divorced from whatever he might have done. Louis Armstrong still sings, with a posthumous hit of "What a Wonderful World." Dizzy, as lost avatar of the old modern, is silent, residing in clothing ads and holograms.


This article first appeared in Coda, The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, Issue 259, January/February, 1995.


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