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Remembering the life of jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie


Wednesday, October 21, 2015, 3:13 PM

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Dizzy Gillespie would have been 98 years old today. His puffed out cheeks and bent trumpet were staples of his his jazz career.

His trumpet was bent, his on-stage antics were quirky and unpredictable, but Dizzy Gillespie’s impact on jazz was straight-laced and undeniable.

One of the fathers of the bebop movement, Gillespie grew up in a musical household and transformed into a puffy cheeked trumpeter with a signature sound.

Winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a devout follower of the Baha’i faith (he said in an interview that he “wasn’t too good a Christian”), he went from the rough-and-tumble young musician with a loose tongue to a jazz icon in his later years.

On what would have been his 98th birthday, here are some interesting facts about Dizzy Gillespie.

The bent trumpet

Elvis had his hairstyle; Gillespie had his twisted trumpet.

It was the musician’s trademark, and it happened by accident.

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The signature bent trumpet was an accidental discovery by Gillespie.

Gillespie wrote in his autobiography, “To Be or Not to Bop,” that backup dancers Stump n’ Stumpy were “fooling around on the bandstand,” when one of them pushed the other into his trumpet.

Miraculously, it was the bell that bore the weight of the fall. Gillespie wrote that “999 times out of a thousand if someone fell on a horn, it would bend the valves or maybe hit and bend the valve case.”

But this one time it bent the bell, and a new style of trumpeting was born.

When Gillespie got home that night, he tried playing the bent horn, realizing that he liked the way it sounded, with the notes coming quicker to his ear.

He asked the Martin Company to make him a trumpet with the bell at a 45-degree angle, and he used it for the duration of his career.

Spat with Cab Calloway

It started with a spitball.

As a hot-headed 22-year-old, Gillespie joined Cab Calloway’s orchestra, giving him an introduction to the industry.

But Calloway, though he recognized the youngster’s talent, was not always enamored with his actions.

“Dizzy was a devil, a playful devil you know,” Calloway said.

Tensions between the two reached their pinnacle at the State Theatre in Hartford when a spitball landed on Calloway’s stage. He took it personally, and accused Gillespie of being the source of the saliva.

“You wouldn’t expect nobody else but Dizzy,” he said after the fact.

Gillespie actually wasn’t the culprit in this case, though, and despite denying his involvement, Calloway charged at the young musician, turning the incident into a physical confrontation.

The fight ended when Gillespie pulled a switchblade from his pocket. After drawing blood from Calloway, the two men were broken up.

“I coulda killed him, I was so mad. It was a serious fight, a very serious thing,” Gillespie wrote.

Calloway fired Gillespie immediately and the young musician was forced to move on.

How he got out of serving in World War II

Gillespie was not the only high-profile name to dodge the draft, but he did so in a notable way.

The army granted him 4F status (which included mental deficiencies) for a portion of his ramblings to an army recruitment officer.

Not unlike Malcolm X’s abrasive tactics to avoid service, Gillespie made some outlandish statements in his interview.

“The white man’s foot has been in my a—–e, buried up to his knee in my a—–e,” Gillespie said.

“So if you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot at the enemy, I’m liable to create a case of ‘mistaken identity’ of who I might shoot.”

Though Gillespie may not have truly believed everything he said, the notion that black men were unwilling to serve because they were not being granted equal rights was a widespread one.

Write-in for president

Kanye West can thank Gillespie for paving the path for celebrity presidential campaigns.

In 1960, his booking agency made “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons, originally as a joke, but the more Gillespie talked politics, the more serious it all sounded.

“Anybody coulda made a better president than the ones we had in those times, dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their human rights,” he wrote in his autobiography.”

“I was the only choice for a thinking man.”

He started selling the buttons in 1963, donating the money to the Congress of Racial Equality.

As the buzz surrounding his campaign started to grow louder, Gillespie began naming his cabinet members, albeit prematurely.

Drummer Max Roach would be his minister of war, Louis Armstrong would serve as head of the Ministry of Agriculture and Miles Davis would be in charge of the CIA.

Ambitious, yes, but Gillespie didn’t stop there. He announced that he would also rename the White House the Blues House.

The campaign dissolved in early 1964, and although Gillespie considered another run in 1972, his short stint in politics came to a close.

Gillespie’s actual politics

Presidential campaign stunt aside, this jazz musician actually did have some strong political beliefs – among them race, education and the military.

In some ways, his ideals resembled the far left leanings of a Bernie Sanders type candidate.

“Education would be beautiful, free, subsidized by the government. All of it. Anytime you wanted to learn something, I’d pay you to do it,” Gillespie wrote.

At the same time, Gillespie did not fight back against the homophobic attitudes that pervaded the jazz scene of the 1950s and ’60s.

“I don’t even know a jazz musician who’s a homosexual — not a real jazz musician,” he was quoted as saying.

The rise of bebop

Stemming from the work of swing bands in the 1940s, the bebop movement took swing music and made it faster, more technical and more complex.

These changes made it difficult to dance to bebop songs, but it also placed a greater emphasis on the music itself.

Improvisation was common in these scores, and Gillespie worked hard to thrust bebop into the national spotlight.

Gillespie’s songs “A Night in Tunisia” and “Salt Peanuts” were two famous examples.


Music & Arts – NY Daily News

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