This past January, it was 10 years since trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie lost his battle against cancer. It ended a distinguished and innovative career for one of the true geniuses of jazz. But his impact on the music and the people who worked with him lives on.
That impact as writer, arranger, bandleader and human being is so powerful that some still feel his presence, as if he's looking over their shoulders.
Gillespie's legacy was the subject of a discussion by eight musicians who played with him at various stages of his career. They shared their thoughts at a panel discussion last month at the Cape May, N.J, Jazz Festival. The weekend of music was a Gillespie tribute.
"For me, the most important part of Dizzy's persona was that he was always searching; he was always listening to music from all over," said flutist Herbie Mann. "We had grown up listening to Bird (Charlie Parker) and bebop, but all of a sudden this other element came into the music and he was the first guy to do that.
"There was no flute tradition in jazz," Mann said. "But I said 'Wait a minute, in other cultures, the flute is one of the improvisers -- in Cuban music, Brazilian music, African music.' That became my path. Dizzy was the one to open up that path and I am eternally grateful."
Tenor saxophonist Benny Golson recalled when he joined Gillespie's band in 1956 and visited the rehearsal studio that Dizzy had in the basement of his home, then in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y.
"It was like being greased with oil from a holy man. Everything he shared with me I remember. I started to play my horn and played the bridge to 'Woody 'n' You.' He said, 'Uh, uh, uh, uh.' Like it was painful to him. I was playing it wrong, "Golson said.
"I was playing it the way everyone else had. But he said it was wrong and he showed me the correct way. Dizzy was a man who shared everything he knew. He had no secrets. He was a master with rhythms. He just had a knack for the rhythm."
Alto saxophonist Phil Woods made a separate trip to that same basement, but it wasn't at first a willing journey.
"I remember one time, I got kidnapped by Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie," Woods said. "I was working at Birdland. I was drinking too much and unhappy with the band I was playing with and moaning and groaning and all that stuff.
"Dizzy and Art took me to Dizzy's pad out in Corona where he lived and said: "Now what is your problem, man?' I said, 'Oh, man, I'm not ready. I'm a white guy I'm not going to make it in jazz.' And Dizzy said, 'Young man, Charlie Parker did not give this music to any particular race. He gave it to everyone in the world. And if you can hear it, you can have it. You can't steal a gift.' I'll never forget that. "I said, 'Do you think I can make it?' Dizzy said 'Yeah, if you'd shape up.' He gave me the confidence. He said, 'You can play, but you've got to get your act together.' These two giants of our industry taking the time off to talk to this maudlin, honky guy who didn't know which end was up. But they took the time," Woods said. "Dizzy was most supportive, and school was open always to the end.
"The amazing thing was the yin and yan of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Bird was the meteor who wasn't around a long time. He came, he changed it and he left. But Dizzy was the arranger, the composer, the reader, the sober, industrious one. Everybody knew who the boss was," Woods said. "Dizzy was the teacher, the one who passed it on."
Pianist Junior Mance called his years in the Gillespie band from 1958 to 1961 "probably my most profound learning experience. I learned more from my three years with Dizzy than all of my music teachers, even in the music school that I dropped out of," Mance said.
"I remember spending several hours at a time in his basement studio being shown chord changes that I never knew existed. How to comp, how to accompany instrumentalists. That to play the right chord changes, I had to listen. I learned a lot of little things that weren't in books."
Bassist Earl May had experience with acoustic, upright basses before joining Gillespie in 1971 (he remained with him until '74). But Dizzy forced him to get an electric bass because his music was turning in a funkier direction. "I didn't make sense to me in a bebop context, but it worked out very well," May said. "I went halfway around the world with him and every place we went seemed like his backyard. He had an enormous way of bringing everybody to him."
"He gave a chance to so many young and old players," says reed player Paquito d'Rivera, whom Gillespie sought out as a teenager in Cuba and was a member of his United Nation Orchestra from 1988 to 1991. Gillespie had arrived in Havana aboard a cruise ship with several other jazz musicians and had heard about d'Rivera's blossoming talent. But when Gillespie knocked on his door, nobody was home.
"I found a note in my door that said 'Paquito, we have been looking for you. Where are you?' It was signed 'Dizzy Gillespie.' I said 'What kind of joke is this?' Then I then went to the grocery store on the corner. The owner said, 'Paquito, there was a man looking for you. He is a black guy who dressed like Sherlock Holmes.' I said, 'Ah, Dizzy Gillespie.'"
Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi worked alongside d'Rivera in Gillespie's final band, the United Nations Orchestra. "Dizzy brought humor to the stage always. But I never saw him clown or crack a joke when he put the trumpet to his lips. When he played, it was for real. It was serious," Roditi said.
Bassist John Lee was a member of several different Gillespie bands, large and small, from 1984 to 1982, and now is program director of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars.
"I can't decide whether I learned more from him about music or life, and it was probably the latter," Lee said. "He always had fun every night. We'd travel 16 hours sometimes, but no matter how tedious the travel, when we hit the stage, I never saw him mad or cranky. The man was filled with so much love and he gave so much to all of us. His presence is so huge that it doesn't feel like he's gone." Woods also recalled how Gillespie was a frequent jazz ambassador to foreign continents, bringing his music and humanity on tours organized and financed by the U.S. State Department. He was on one of those trips -- to the Middle East -- as a Gillespie sideman in 1956.
"When the US government wanted to put its best foot forward, it sent jazz," Woods said. "I personally feel Dizzy should have been sent a few more times to Iran and Baghdad. We might have avoided a whole lot of trouble. Use music, not guns."
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