December 5, 2017


The Chief of Entertainers : Trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie was a jazz prophet, a musical genius, and a scatterbrained whirlwind (David Grogan, DECEMBER 4, 2017, American Scholar)

Dizzy grew up the youngest of nine children of James and Lottie Gillespie in a racist backwater of South Carolina. James, a brick mason in Cheraw who moonlighted as a pianist and manager of a ragtag local band, encouraged all the Gillespie kids except John Birks, an irrepressible mischief maker, to take up music. "Every Sunday after church, my father would get his razor strap and whup me, even if I hadn't done anything wrong," Dizzy recalled. In 1927, when he was 10, his father died of a severe asthma attack. "The first thing I did was to take that razor strap and cut it into a thousand pieces. Nobody used it after that."

Five years later, a neighbor lent him a trumpet, and his natural affinity for the instrument earned him a scholarship at the Laurinburg Institute, an African-American prep school 28 miles from Cheraw. When Lottie moved to Philadelphia in 1935, he dropped out of school a few months shy of graduation to follow her. Armed with a pawnshop trumpet, which he carried in a paper bag, he soon landed a gig in a traveling band led by trombonist Frankie Fairfax. "Guys in the band joked about me being 'that dizzy trumpet player from down south.' The name stuck."

A reservoir of simmering rage, which Dizzy had learned to keep a lid on as a youngster, added a whiff of danger to his demeanor and boiled over on one notable occasion early in his career. Dizzy got his first taste of commercial success in 1939 when he joined the Cab Calloway band. He was abruptly fired two years later when Calloway mistakenly accused him of throwing a spitball during a musical interlude by a small ensemble, the Cab Jivers. "Cab grabbed me by the collar and I had my knife out in a second," Dizzy said. "I nicked him on his butt, and next thing you know there was blood all over his white suit."

Losing the cushy gig freed Dizzy to spend more time playing with Charlie Parker, whom he'd met in Kansas City in 1940 while traveling with the Calloway band. "He was up in a hotel room playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown,' " Dizzy recalled. "I'd never heard anything like the sound he got from that raggedy horn." Over time they became soulmates, first in jam sessions in New York and later as musical co-conspirators in bands led by pianist Earl Hines and singer Billy Eckstine. Dizzy formed his own band in 1945 and included Bird in his front line. Their partnership culminated in an eight-week booking nearly a year later at Billy Berg's in Hollywood. When Dizzy returned to New York, Bird lingered on the West Coast. "I gave him all his money and a ticket back, and what he did with it, God knows," Dizzy recalled. "He suffered a nervous breakdown after that and went into Camarillo State Hospital."

In 1947, Bird surprised Dizzy when he showed up at his first major concert at Car-negie Hall. "He walked out on stage with a rose," Dizzy said. "It probably cost him his last 75 cents." Even though the two teamed up for several historic concerts and recordings in the years that followed, Bird's erratic behavior gradually tore them apart. Dizzy was forever haunted by his last encounter with Bird, a week before his death in March 1955. "I ran into him at a club called the Embers, on 52nd Street in New York, and he looked so sad. He said, 'Save me.' I said, 'Man, nobody can save you. You have to save yourself.' When I heard he died, it broke me up. I thought I would never get over it."

Dizzy credited one person with making sure he didn't get sucked into a vortex of self-destruction like Bird. "My wife, Lorraine, is my Rock of Gibraltar," he said. When they met in 1937, paying gigs were scarce for Dizzy and she was a petite young widow earning subsistence wages as a member of a traveling troupe of chorus girls. Dizzy was attracted by her lissome beauty and wicked sense of humor, as well as her moral rectitude. "While the rest of the chorus girls were up in the wings looking for musicians who would take them to after-hours joints, she'd be down in the dressing room, knitting or crocheting or reading." At first she ignored the mash notes Dizzy sent her. But their romance blossomed after she saw him begging outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem for 15 cents to buy a bowl a soup. Lorraine curbed Dizzy's reckless spending, helped him negotiate with shady booking agents, and brought a sense of emotional stability to his life.

"She saved him from the dope and all the other stray things in the world of jazz," says Jacques Muyal, a Swiss businessman and jazz producer who was one of Dizzy's closest friends. Lorraine was also Dizzy's secret muse. In a conversation with Muyal shortly after Dizzy's death, she may have solved a mystery that has long obsessed jazz aficionados: the origin of the word bebop. "Lorraine said Dizzy liked to come to the Cotton Club rehearsals and the chorus girls sometimes practiced their dance steps without music, marking the rhythms by chanting be bop be bop."

Over the years, Lorraine turned increasingly inward. She had a Catholic altar installed in a dedicated prayer room at the house in Englewood and kept what Dizzy described as "the cleanest residence in the world," with plastic covers on the white furniture in the living room. On the rare occasions Dizzy was home, he slept in the buzzard's nest and hung out with his friends and fellow musicians in the basement rec room, which was equipped with a piano, set of drums, and pool table. But he telephoned Lorraine daily from the road, and they would laugh about the latest developments in their favorite soap opera, As the World Turns. Shortly after they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1990, I asked him to share his secret of matrimonial success. "Never tell your wife she is wrong," he said. "If she's wrong, she knows it. But she doesn't want to hear it."

Posted by at December 5, 2017 5:32 PM