Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie
By Alyn Shipton
Oxford University Press, 422 pages, $30
The revolutionary era of modern jazz began during the early years of World War II. A startling, complex new music called bebop heralded the age and remains a central force in jazz today -- even though it was followed by a quarter century of innovation and radical change.
Development of the music since the '70s, however, has been diffuse, multidirectional and lacking pre-eminent leadership. One major tendency is a return to the hard bop of the late '50s and the modal music of the early '60s; another continues the avant-garde, non-tonal, free-music experiments begun during the same period; yet another mixes and matches all the modern jazz forms with cutting-edge rock, world music and contemporary classical composition.
The recidivists, exemplified by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the now somewhat aging "young lions" who rose to prominence with him in the '80s, are looked upon by supporters as sustaining a great tradition. Detractors see them as reactionary, perhaps leading to the death of jazz.
Free music, although vibrant and vital in the hands of players such as Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, is to many not only abrasive and difficult, but also another dead end -- comparable in many ways to serialism in classical music.
The pastiche some call postmodern jazz and others simply call new music is creative and intriguing, though many wonder if it really ought to be considered jazz at all. Saxophonist-composer John Zorn and others associated with New York's Knitting Factory club are its exemplars -- and most of them couldn't care less what it's called.
At century's end the overwhelming question is where jazz is going next and who is going to lead it there. Howard Mandel's valuable new book, Future Jazz, examines the music's many convolutions of the past three decades through extensive, often penetrating interviews conducted over the years with leading practitioners of the art -- some of them still relatively unknown. There's an especially interesting passage on the klezmer-inspired avant-garde Jewish jazz coterie. He does not, however, forecast what future jazz will be, other than to imply, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, that jazz present and jazz past are both, perhaps, present in jazz future.
Groovin' High, Alyn Shipton's authoritative new biography of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, carries us back to that key juncture of jazz past, the bebop revolution. It illuminates the origins of modern jazz through the life and music of the trumpet player who founded the movement with Charlie Parker, then lived to become its beloved international ambassador.
Shipton, a British jazz critic, editor and broadcaster, proves a thorough researcher -- setting straight a few myths generated by Gillespie himself -- and a keen analyst, dispassionately identifying Gillespie's lesser efforts within the brilliance. He is especially acute in tracing the early development of Gillespie's trumpet style, indicating touches of Louis Armstrong and others along with Roy Eldridge, who is usually credited as the key influence. Shipton also offers new insights into the profound work of the now-neglected Eldridge.
If saxophonist Parker was bebop's most innovative and exceptional soloist -- perhaps in all of jazz -- Gillespie at his best ranked not far behind. Furthermore, he made major musicological contributions as a composer-arranger-bandleader, among them bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms and advanced modal harmonies into the idiom. As Billy Taylor, the pianist-commentator puts it, he "codified the music," then went on to a rich career as a bandleader, prolific recording artist and generous mentor.
The intense Parker-Gillespie partnership lasted fewer than five years, including stints in the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, but left an indelible mark. Though Parker referred to his partner as "the other half of my heartbeat," there were immense differences between the two. The introverted Parker's meteoric career crashed quickly from an epic excess of booze and drugs; Gillespie never fell prey to those demons. Moreover, he was a natural comedian and showman who, like Armstrong, mugged, sang and cavorted for the audience, much to the disdain of some critics who viewed their antics as everything from Uncle Tomism to sellout.
Gillespie was not, Shipton acknowledges, without personal problems. As a young man his pranks could take cruel turns (thus his nickname), and he was quick with his fists, even with a knife. A life-long marriage to Lorraine Gillespie, who managed his business affairs and otherwise kept him on the straight and narrow, did not stand in the way of myriad adulterous affairs and fathering a daughter out of wedlock.
When Gillespie died in 1993 at 75, his trademark beret, goatee, horn-rimmed glasses, upswept trumpet and frog-like puffed cheeks were recognized and venerated around the world, while the music he pioneered with Parker laid a base for the further progressions of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Coltrane's death in 1967, however, marked the end of the stream of great, dominant leaders that began with Armstrong.
Though in Future Jazz he makes no effort to identify a new leader, former Chicagoan Mandel brings us directly into the lives and works of a couple of dozen important post-Coltrane artists, from members of the early avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago to prosperous guitarists John McLaughlin and George Benson; from the relatively obscure composer-conductor Butch Morris to esteemed vocalist Cassandra Wilson; from the brilliant but often-fatuous Marsalis to the visionary composer-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp.
Mandel, a former editor of Downbeat and other music journals, gives no deep musicological analysis of their works, but describes them neatly, as in his take of a David Murray tenor-sax solo: "He emits skeins of notes that crest in higher and higher waves, nonstop phrases that course through whole choruses with pulsating rhythmic vitality, and climactic squeals."
For the most part he lets the musicians speak for themselves. The expansive saxophonist Joe Lovano notes the result of playing with big bands: "'I'm playing with an ensemble attitude even when I play alone.'" The edgy Zorn professes: "'The way I work is linear. I work in blocks. . . . That's something I learned from Stravinsky and from cartoon music.'"
In his probing, discursive, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes frustrated rumination on the state of the art today, Mandel offers insights not just into the musicians and their music, but the business of the music. We learn how few jazz discs are actually sold, of the shrinking number of serious venues and the conflicts of the artists who sometimes compromise to survive -- let alone thrive -- within their chosen world. Several of his subjects speak candidly about their quests for success.
Mandel makes no global judgments, either on the direction of jazz or the ultimate historical position of any of his subjects, though he will comment that a particular work is "fiendishly clever" or knock down someone's comment with a quick aside. He does, however, have some salient thoughts on the issue of "progress" in music:
"The assumption of a vanguard . . . is linked to the idea that music advances in one progressive direction over time, continually evolving and improving. . . . Ideas that were once thought way out front can grow old and stale, lose ability to shock or provoke, when assimilated into the cultural mainstream. . . . But the avant-garde isn't rendered automatically passe by the passage of decades; individual artifacts can remain 'avant-garde' for centuries."
Perhaps then, as Joe Segal, owner of Chicago's Jazz Showcase club, tells Mandel, "Bebop is still the music of the future."
Don Rose is a political consultant and a former musician who has written extensively on jazz.