NEW YORK -- Let's cut straight to the news, which is not that Dizzy Gillespie, 73, is being honored tonight by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievement as a trumpet virtuoso, be-bop pioneer, champion of American jazz and possibly its most consistently endearing personality.
To accept the award, Gillespie had to take the night off.
Now that's news.
Dizzy Gillespie almost never takes a breather. He performed at the Smithsonian Friday night, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Resident Associates Program. This Thursday, he opens a four-night engagement at Blues Alley, where he has semi-resident status.
Of the Kennedy Center honor, Gillespie says he was "more surprised than anything else. I didn't think I was ready for that."
This is probably a bit disingenuous. After all, awards seem to come to him like lint to wool: Friday, the Smithsonian awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, which comes on top of ASCAP's Duke he was given at the Kennedy Center last spring, and the Paul Robeson Award from the state of New Jersey, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science's Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the National Medal of the Arts, America's most prestigious cultural award, and its French equivalent, the Commandre d'ordre des Arts et Lettres. Gillespie's Englewood, N.J., home is cluttered with awards, including 14 honorary doctorates, but no gold records -- modern jazz has always been more about art than commerce.
Now, if Dizzy Gillespie had somehow struck a contract in the '30s that paid him by the mile, he might very well be richer than his pal Bill Cosby (who will present him with his honor tonight). He is easily the most traveled musician since Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and, like them, has become an indelible symbol for jazz around the world. That's also a good description of Gillespie's itinerary: We are talking in a hotel dining room in New York, which he has just returned to after starring in his first feature film in Portugal. The next day, he is scheduled for a quick trip to Indiana, then another transatlantic flight to Italy, and back again to prepare for tonight's festivities.
"You must be rested to perform well, so I manage to be rested," Gillespie says in his warm, raspy rumble. "I can go right to sleep in a plane and I don't hear nothing."
"I can sleep on a motorcycle," he improvises. "Driving it!"
Gillespie feels the Kennedy Center honor is less recognition of Dizzy Gillespie than recognition of the uniqueness and importance of America's classical music, jazz.
That art has clearly benefited from the lengthy relationship it's had with Gillespie, an extrovert who has refused to compromise his music since emerging on the front line of the be-bop revolution in the '40s. His contributions embrace not only Gillespie's ear-turning and eye-opening be-bop instigations with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and others, but also his modern big bands in the late '40s and '50s and his lifelong championing of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.
Even now, Gillespie continues to deflect much of the credit to Parker, who has been dead for 35 years but whose shadow will probably touch Gillespie's tonight.
"We were really the same person," Gillespie says. They were separated mostly by geography -- Parker in Kansas City, Kan., Gillespie in Philadelphia -- but both were experimenting in the late '30s with fast moving harmonic changes built on complex chords. In fact, Gillespie still remembers the time 50 years ago when he and Parker jammed for the first time in a Kansas City hotel room.
"When I heard Charlie Parker, I'd never heard anybody like that," says Gillespie. "He was different, more different than anybody I ever heard. His timing, his attack, his bluesiness ... oooh, that brother could play some blues!"
Great artists are generally driven by an impulse to find their own voices, are blessed with the talent to do so, and are rooted in the bold advances of their predecessors. Gillespie, the last of nine children born to a bricklayer and amateur musician in Cheraw, S.C., started on trombone and switched to trumpet at 14 when he realized his arms were too short to reach some positions. A prodigy, he learned theory and harmony at Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina and when the family moved to Philadelphia after his father's death, Gillespie quickly immersed himself in a series of Big Band apprenticeships.
Gillespie has always credited Roy Eldridge as his idol (ironically, his first major break came when he replaced Eldridge in Teddy Hill's band in 1937). This comes up when Gillespie is reminded of his many trumpet progeny -- from Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard to Jon Faddis and Wynton Marsalis -- which leads him to explain how Eldridge's idol was Louis Armstrong, who always said he was trying to sound like King Oliver.
"Jazz does that, all the way down to Kid Ory and Buddy Bolden," Gillespie says. "All those guys created a style and then a lot of guys started copying that style and before you know it you got a whole country playing it."
Eldridge was noted for the warmth of his playing and his phrasing; Gillespie's style was faster, lighter, more piercing in tone. "When I was in Philadelphia, I was busy trying to play like Roy," Gillespie recalls. "It took a lot of listening to figure how he attacked notes, how he phrased.
"But I was sophisticated harmonically, maybe more so than Charlie Parker because I played the piano, so I used to look for unusual notes and chords," Gillespie says. "I could play almost anything he could play, if it wasn't too fast, because I could hear the notes. I used to work with Monk on chords ..."
With considerable help, Parker and Gillespie were instrumental in shaping be-bop's identity in the '40s and exposing its rhythmically complex, harmonically dense language to a wider audience (the name was taken from a characteristic rhythmic figure often found in the music). Unfortunately, even as be-bop modernized the music, it polarized a public weaned on big band dance rhythms. To them, be-bop's free-flowing articulation and frenetic invention were not jazz. It was unorthodox and chaotic and even Armstrong slighted it as "jiu-jitsu music." Now, 50 years later, be-bop is still the music against which young jazz musicians measure themselves. Somehow, it remains essentially unchanged.
"It was deep," says Gillespie. "You couldn't add too much onto it and it still be be-bop."
In its early days be-bop was ignored, or ridiculed, by the industry and the media, which tended to focus more on personalities than the sophisticated musical sensibilities they embodied. Ironically, this worked to Gillespie's advantage. Desperate for a front man to balance intense, brooding and sometimes self-destructive masters like Monk, Parker and Bud Powell, be-bop found in Gillespie its single most effective advocate for public acceptance. He was clown prince and high priest rolled into one colorful character, possessed of the most incredible blowfish cheeks and given to wispy goatees, horn-rimmed glasses and berets -- the embodiment of the cool cat.
There was also Gillespie's ebullient personality and a reputation for clowning (on stage and off) that got him his name in the first place. He also tended to tongue-in-cheek vocals and some critics felt these were all liabilities that detracted from the integrity of the music. But though the trumpeter may not have always taken himself seriously, he always took the music seriously and, like Armstrong and Ellington before, Gillespie made no distinction between being a musician and being an entertainer.
"All of it is show business, entertaining people," he says. "They pay to see you and nobody wants to pay for something they're not enjoying when they've got to reach in their pocket and give it up."
Economic downturns forced Gillespie to dissolve his bands in the '40s and again in the '50s.
"Was I disheartened? I never allowed myself to be," Gillespie insists. "There are certain moments in your career, particularly financially, that are conducive to blowing your top, but it never got to me, really."
The lean times for Gillespie, and for jazz, are long gone.
"They look up when you say you're a jazz person now," he says with a smile.
Since 1956, Gillespie has assumed the mantle of jazz ambassador once worn by Armstrong and Ellington. That year, he became the first jazz musician commissioned by the State Department to take a jazz orchestra on an international goodwill tour (several congressmen thought it was a waste of taxpayers' money and cut the program budget 25 percent the next year -- some things never change). Last year, Gillespie toured Africa under the auspices of USIA/Arts America. In Nigeria, he was ordained an honorary tribal chief, "the Basheere of Iparu," as he slowly and proudly pronounces his latest title.
Travel has allowed Gillespie to exploit his intense curiosity and to further explore the rhythms of the world. It's a process that began in New York in the '30s when he embraced the African polyrhythmic inheritance of Afro-Cuban and Latin music, decades before it became fashionable. Back then there were only a few musicians from those cultures working in New York's jazz community, but "they had a deeper sense of rhythm," Gillespie says. "They played in all different times -- 3/8, 6/8, 3/4, and cut time 4/4 and 2/4, and it was highly enlightening," particularly the interplay with percussionist Chano Pozo.
"When I heard Chano Pozo, I recognized that this is the way our music should go," Gillespie says. "So I started studying that and after we were together for a while, we played like one instrument. He'd take something from me, I'd take something from him and we'd put it together."
That's his continuing crusade, 42 years after Pozo was murdered in a New York bar. Gillespie has long championed a world music based on the roiling rhythms of Cuba and Latin America, most publicly with the United Nations Orchestra, which he directs and which includes, appropriately, musicians from a half dozen countries. The U.N. Orchestra is emotionally, if not officially, connected to Gillespie's world view, one shaped by his two-decades-long spiritual grounding in the Baha'i faith.
Dizzy Gillespie's concert schedule does have some gaps (and he appears in recent ads for the Gap, modeling a black turtleneck). In a late-blooming acting career, Gillespie has just finished starring in -- and providing the score for -- "Winter in Lisboa," which he says is "about a musician who gives up playing in the United States and moves to Europe and starts washing cars... . he starts playing again through the interest of a young white piano player and they hook up together and everything happens ..."
A typical European jazz fantasy, this will be Gillespie's first major role, though in 1962 he lent his distinctive voice to John and Faith Hubley's Oscar-winning animated short, "The Hole." There's talk about another Hubley short and of recording "Peter and the Wolf" with a symphony orchestra, as well as more records (his June 1987 gala at Wolf Trap has just been released by Pioneer -- it's available only on Laserdisc).
If Gillespie's a survivor, there is sadness because of the recent deaths of several longtime friends: Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey and Sarah Vaughan (all fellow alumni of Billy Eckstine's 1947 be-bop band).
"A waste of talent to go that quickly," Gillespie says quietly.
In May, Gillespie and his wife, Lorraine, whom he met in Washington when she was a chorus girl at the Howard Theatre, celebrated their golden anniversary. Don't look for Lorraine Gillespie at the Kennedy Center tonight -- she doesn't like to leave their Englewood home -- but Gillespie makes it clear that Lorraine has provided the grounding, the center, of his career.
"I been married all those years and that's a nice thing to lean on. I could just concentrate on the music."
Someone else will be missing from tonight's ceremony, as well -- the alto saxophonist with whom Gillespie heralded a revolution a half century ago. That's evident in the distant gaze Gillespie has when he's asked if he still misses Charlie Parker.
"Yeah, man... . He was something else."
But Parker was just the half of it.