The Life of Dizzy Gillespie
By Alyn Shipton
Oxford. 422 pp. $30
Taking its title from one of the anthems of the 1940s-born jazz style known as bebop, "Groovin' High" is British writer Alyn Shipton's biography of Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet virtuoso and co-inventor of this still new-sounding musical form. Shipton marshals fresh data that give nuance, and sometimes the lie, to the received knowledge of bebop, particularly the contributions of Gillespie.
Where did bop, with its zigzag melodic lines, acidic harmonies and edgy rhythms, come from? From luminous moments of revelation by geniuses like Gillespie (along with confreres Charlie "Bird" Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke), yes. But as "Groovin' High" makes clear, bebop emerged from a constellation of cultural and musical factors that put the new sounds in the air.
No figure, except perhaps Bird, exemplified bebop better than Dizzy Gillespie. His horn-rimmed shades and side-slung beret, his goatee, ballooning cheeks and upturned custom trumpet defined an era as much as did his brilliantly metallic skyrockets of sound. Part of the answer to where bebop came from is folded into the narrative of Gillespie's life as an artist. And some of the book's most significant sections explore his (and other boppers') modes of training and lines of artistic influence, which can be as unexpected as the music itself.
At first, Gillespie was self-trained. Born in Cheraw, S.C., he was so gifted that even his lack of music-schooling proved to be a kind of advantage: With no one to tell him that the sounds he heard in his head could not be played on the trumpet, he went ahead and played them. And he was one of those artists whose brief periods of formal training meant everything; certainly Henry James's phrase for Stephen Crane applies here, that Gillespie was one "upon whom nothing was lost."
That Parker and Gillespie learned from, and inspired, each other is evident from their best recordings together, on which, as Shipton says, the two men played as one. Gillespie also drew inspiration from the examples of Louis Armstrong and, most pertinently, Roy Eldridge, whose bristling lines of trumpet fire helped cut the way to the world of bebop. But, fascinatingly, Gillespie shaped his style not primarily from the trumpet masters themselves but from those modeling themselves after the masters.
Here one also finds the story of an American artist struggling to make enough money to live on. "I'm not interested anymore in going down in history," Gillespie frequently told interviewers. "I want to eat." Ironically, Gillespie--who often is seen in steadfast revolt against the monument that was Armstrong--eventually became, like Satchmo, an artist-entertainer known for his crowd-pleasing humor and for music that, however complicated to play, was fun to hear.
In "Groovin' High," we meet John Birks Gillespie--the poor boy whose humor could turn mean, who for years carried a fierce-looking carpet knife; Diz, the co-author of the bop movement and indefatigable teacher of the new music; Dizzy, the bandleader and composer who explored the rich veins of Latin American music as they blended with and complemented jazz; and Dizzy, the "musical ambassador" traveling overseas during the Cold War, unfreezing anti-American feelings with his hard-swinging bands, charismatic personality and identification with the poorest people wherever he went.
We see "Dizzy for President," active in a campaign that stood, among other things, for changing the name of the White House; who became, in his last years, an activist member of the Baha'i faith; the man who did not do drugs and who thus survived when many of his fellow boppers did not; "Birks" to his friends, the man whose wife, Lorraine, was the best friend who held his penchant for no-tomorrow partying to a minimum; Diz, who nonetheless liked his women on the side, and who fathered a daughter outside his marriage.
"Groovin' High" has its disappointments. One wishes, for example, that Shipton had explored more specific influences on the world of bebop from the richly layered worlds of swing music, some of whose adventuresome players helped set the table for bebop. Where, for instance, is Duke Ellington (always beyond category) in this bebop story? Bebop was a revolutionary music in a sense; but it also was made by big-band graduates who were determined to swing the music harder than ever.
This biography's most troubling flaw is that its author leans back hard on the lingo of sociological analysis that was already outmoded as bebop was coming on. Shipton contends that Norman Granz's jazz tours were good for "musicians like" Gillespie and singer Ella Fitzgerald because the tours "boosted their self-esteem and helped them feel important as artists."
Alyn Shipton, how do you sound?! Who, one might ask, was more brimming with confidence than American jazz musicians? Their creation of the many varieties of bebop was among this century's most audacious acts. And who, if not Diz and Ella, inspired more Americans (and Brits, for that matter), black and non-black, to want to be what they were: smooth, elegant, swinging people and, to boot, major creators of the music that became, in their lifetimes, the envy of the world?
A second edition of "Groovin' High" would do well to reconceive this dangerous, phony image of the poor black jazz musician, fumbling at bootstraps. That way, the book would have a chance to do what Gillespie himself did: have its say without the foul air of cliche getting in the way.
Robert G. O'Meally, who teaches English at Columbia University and is the author of "The Jazz Cadence of the American Culture."