AROUND 1948, when I was about 14 years old, my older cousin gave me (actually "lent" me, but he blew -- 'cause he never got them back) a bunch of BeBop records. This was my first up-close exposure to the new music. Before that I dug the Ravens, the Orioles, Little Esther, Dinah Washington, Larry Darnell, Louis Jordan & his Tympani Five, basically the popular music of the Afro-American people, contemporary blues. But now my cousin laid the real heavies on me: Max Roach & His BeBop Boys, Charlie Parker's ReBoppers, a mess of Guilds, Savoys, Dials, Musicrafts, the riches of the new world! Whether that was my first consciouness of Dizzy Gillespie is difficult now to ascertain because I think Diz was getting some publicity (as he points out in his book), around the nuttier aspects of what the media could draw out about the music, in Time and Esquire, and such. But I know once I got hold of the sides my conversion was complete. I know I must have seen pictures of Diz earlier, but at one point, during that period or earlier, I painted a picture on one side of my skate case (though I never could skate) -- the picture of a Diz-like figure with lopsided beret and hornrimmed glasses. And underneath the picture I painted "To Be or Not To Bop."
What was so thrilling about that music was that it took me places I had never been, made things go through my head that I wasn't before hip to. And then those windowpane bebop glasses and goatee and beret -- now you knew that was hip! But the music, itself, became for me the passport and vehicle for a head trip which I still make every chance I can. BeBop was a different music for me because it not only reached me rhythmically (and with what rhythms!) but it seemed to me deeper, heavier; it not only moved my body, but got hold of my mind!
to BE, or not . . . to BOP is a must acquisition for anybody interested in the music from more than a surface, strictly entertainment point of view. The book is part of the music's history -- an important document adding to our understanding of the development of modern Afro-American improvised music, from the point of view of one of its major innovators.
When I first approached the book I had more than a little trepidation because peeping the format -- mostly interviews, with Diz and Al's running commentary as the overall collecting form -- I thought that, like a few other jazz books I read, that this format would tend to disperse the insights and dribble too frequently off into trivia. But the spook-writer (which is different from a ghostwriter) Al Fraser does a good job laying the various interviews and comments by the host of commentators on Diz's life and music, placing them throughout the book in a way that actually serves to move the narrative forward, and gives real insight into Dizzy's statements. Fraser also places Diz's own comments and corroborations, and even his opposition to the others' interviews, so that they are interesting and funny.
There is more than just a taste of trivia and exaggerated detail, e.g., about Diz's early and home life, his relationships with various people, his many knuckle-drills with all kinds of dudes, etc. (In fact, Diz got enough of that stuff to make a good novel; he and Fraser should get together on that.) But, in spite of this and Diz's occasional ego-trips, the book comes across as an important work because it tells us so much about the real-life history and development of the music. For instance, there is enough purely musical discussion vis-a-vis the technical innovations that BeBop made to satisfy all but the straight-out technique freaks, who are so into form they blow the content and feeling. We also come to understand much more about the life of the black jazz musician in the U.S. -- how the national oppression and racism specifically obstructs and exploits and many times even kills black musical artists, especially would-be innovators.
And Diz is a very conscious artist-historian; there are things he wants to make sure get said. One of these is the whole evolutionary-revolutionary historical process of black music's growth and development. Where the music is coming from, where it's been, and why it sounds, at any time, like it does. He cites the Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie trumpet succession many times to make his point: how each contributed, and brought the music with a revolutionary turn, to a higher level, which then set the evolutionary process at work with new materials, new directions with, new stories to tell. He also lets us know that Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, whom he sees as his successors, are really carrying a message that he Diz, got from others and gave, like the relay racer's baton, on over to them. When people dig them, he says, they're really digging me, and all those others before me as well -- which is real, and heavy.
The book begins with Diz's early days in Cheraw, South Carolina, his family, moving on through his first exposure to the trumpet and the music (checking Teddy Hill's bad orchestra on a neighbor's radio -- and thereby coming in contact with Roy Eldridge, his early model, Chu Berry; Dicky Wells). Along with this life motion we also grow to understand who Diz is a little better, how John Birks Gillespie got to be known as "Dizzy" and why. Then there's the move up north to Philly; his learning of the piano, which he cites again and again as a major tool in his harmonic innovations on trumpet ("cause you can see all the chords and the notes in them"); fantastic trips with the many bands Diz played in. We follow his personal and musical ups and downs with interest, not only getting educated along the way, but cracking up repeatedly over the essentially comic verve of Dizzy'sness.
Lucy Millinder, Cab Calloway (and the famous spitball/Cab-Diz rumble incident), the Savoy Ballroom and earlier Newark hipsters like Al Cooper's Savoy Suitans: Diz talks about all of it. We hear about the emergence of the new music -- BeBop and its "flatted fifths," chord substitutions and new virtuousity -- along with stories of Diz's collaboration with those other giants who appeared during that period -- Bird, Monk, Bud, Oscar Pettiford. We learn what a portion of their life was hooked up to the music -- it's all material that historians and the regulation "down" listener will go back to often, because it is laid out by one of these great artists themselves. As H. Bruce Franklin said in his need to read book, The Victim As Criminal and Artist, Afro-American culture is central to American culture, not peripheral, and the fact of American slavery is perhaps the key to understanding what the U.S. is in reality, if not in White House theory.
So Diz runs downs the development of the music and the lives that changed and developed with it. He talks to us about the great Earl Hines band which should have played in the major concert halls of America, or the fantastic Billy Eckstine band, in which Diz was the musical director, and which featured, among others, Bennie Green, trombone; Fats Navarro, trumpet; Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophones; Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, vocals; and a weird dude named Charlie Parker on alto ( . . . another band which should have played in those same million-dollar concert halls but was washed out by the corporate esthetic which bathes most of America in commercial mediocrity). Today they're conning us with fusion and disco, such things which make us contemplate and yearn for an America that would really utilize its human product for the growth of that human product rather than maximum profit for a minority, and the frustration can bite us in the butt, even while we follow Diz's exploits and discoveries and the sinister implication of the artist's life and the peoples' lives momentarily trapped in a sham democracy where Bird and Trane or for that matter Malcolm and Martin King can be dead in their thirties while dudes like old man Rockefeller can live into their eighties.
But the book is a good experience; it makes you feel good and tells you something at the same time, and that's a lot. Dizzy's big bands were also of major importance: we should still be hearing them -- with the likes of John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Heath, J. J. Johnson, Al McKibbon playing with them, and the Gil Fuller, George Russell arrangements, or with BeBop Joe Carroll singing "In The Land Of Ooo Blah Dee," "Schooldays" or "Swing Low Sweet Cadillar." We get to know Diz the innovator, playing together with Bird "like a thing with two heads," Diz's pioneer use of Afro-Latino polyrhythms (using great musicians like Chano Pozo and Candido), his bringing in new things like Samba and its child, Bossa Nova. (Not to mention all the many musicians whom Diz helped and taught or sent off to commercial success like Quincy Jones, or Lalo Schifrin!).
to Be, or not . . . to BOP is a very rich book. It will be a standard reference -- musically, historically, socially. It tells us something about America North, and about some of everybody in it. There are obvious flaws and shortcomings, and some of its political summaries are shaky like jello (like Diz talking about what a great person Ladybird Johnson was -- yaknow?), but you can walk with that, and, what's more, Diz probably don't even believe that stuff, privately! At least, we hope not.