Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

1917-1993

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie

By Gunther Schuller

In saying this last good-bye to Dizzy Gillespie, I cannot suppress the melancholy thought that we all were too late in bestowing the great honor of membership in the Academy upon him and that, struggling against his final illness, he was unable to really appreciate the significance of this distinction. Even sadder, perhaps, is the fact that many of you never had the opportunity to meet this remarkable man and outstanding artist.

I suppose we cannot deny the reality that jazz and jazz musicians are in too many quarters still regarded as something less than artists, skillful entertainers perhaps, at best; ephemeral mountebanks of show business, at worst. Just as the Pulitzer Prize eluded Duke Ellington, master composer of nearly 2,000 works, so too recognition by artist/intellectual academies and foundations for our American jazz greats has been slow and late in coming. But perhaps we can now rejoice in the fact that, finally awakened, we the American Academy of Arts and Letters chose John Birks Gillespie as our first jazz inductee.

And how fitting that tribute was and is. For Dizzy was an “original,” one of the half-dozen seminal figures in jazz, one who dramatically changed the language of jazz in the 1940s, profoundly influencing all who followed, and who as a spectacular virtuoso trumpet player revolutionized brass playing, not only in jazz but classical music as well. Indeed, his technical wizardry on the trumpet tended—for many people—to overshadow his creativity as a composer and the depth and soulfulness of his playing in its quieter less extrovert moments. What he accomplished in terms of speed and virtuosity and range on the trumpet had never been heard before, except perhaps on flutes, clarinets, and violins—it was not uncommon for him to toss off entire choruses above the staff!2 Gillespie opened up vast new vistas for future instrumentalists of all kinds. But below the ebullient, extrovert exterior there pulsed a creativity that imagined and heard new musical shapes, gestures, ideas, and intervallic-harmonic connections that were truly radical. If we remember that much of Dizzy’s composing occurred as spontaneous improvisation, his contribution to the development of jazz is even all the more remarkable.

The depth and grandeur of Gillespie’s music making—a true reflection of his character, his spiritual strength and remarkable intelligence—was, I regret to say, not known to many of his audiences. For GIllespie also had the gift of extraordinary wit, of stinging humor. There was constantly an impish quality about him, which many people saw only as clownishness, not realizing that under that public persona on stage there was a private person of great seriousness, one who brought his sharp intelligence and penetrating mind to bear on the social, educational, political—and not least—racial issues of his time. When Dizzy Gillespie became a candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 1964, it was not an aberrant exercise in nose-thumbing silliness, but an act of genuine concern, a profound commitment—even as he realized the slimness of his chances of success—to become involved in the political process as every citizen in a democracy should, and to make in public a philosophical, ethical statement. Rather than an act of arrogance, it was an act of humility. And although there was not an ounce of pretentiousness in Dizzy Gillespie, he did—in a very quiet and mature way—know his worth.

Born in a tiny village in South Carolina, he took to the trumpet at a very early age like a duck to water, mostly self-taught. In his late teen years he started playing with some of the best big bands of the time: Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Earl Hines, and even Duke Ellington. There he learned and honed his craft, as one did in those days—now young jazz musicians go to conservatories, there being no big bands left. It was when Gillespie teamed up with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke in the mid-1940s that he found his own distinctive creative voice. From that period also stem his finest compositions, classics of modern jazz—like Night in Tunisia, Anthropology, Con Alma, Things to Come— which are as fundamental a repertory to every jazz musician since then as the Beethoven Fifth is in the classical repertory.

Dizzy was one of the most beloved figures in jazz history, admired for his musical accomplishments and adored for his engaging personality and dexterous wit. In later years he became even more celebrated for the upturned bell of his trumpet and the physiological wonder of his incredibly distended cheeks (swelling into enormous pouches when he played)— I sometimes feared Dizzy’s cheeks would simply explode some day on a high note. On the one side, we remember Dizzy as the ultimate hip bopster, the prankster, the Till Eulenspiegel or Puck of jazz; and on the other side we count him as one of those very few in the creative pantheon who irrevocably changed the face of jazz, establishing forever that jazz in the hands of its greatest practitioners could be more than a mere dance or entertainment music— a music to be listened to on its own terms. It is most fitting that we in the Academy recognized him before it was really too late.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1993.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters