“He has learned one of the oldest and best tricks in art — how to give the effect of great power by implying generous amounts of untapped energy. This method is opposed to the dump-everything approach, which swamps, rather than whets, the listener’s appetite.”
The writer is Whitney Balliett; his subject, Dizzy Gillespie; the observation, a timeless truth about art. The trumpeter was born John Birks Gillespie on this date, Oct. 21, one-hundred years ago in Cheraw, S.C. About thirty years ago, I saw him perform in an outdoor concert in Albany, N.Y. In his early seventies, Gillespie was blowing hard and cutting up with the crowd and the other musicians. Even the most sophisticated art can be “accessible” – uncomfortable word, often used to patronize – when delivered with humor and gusto. Like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Gillespie was not ashamed to be an artist and an entertainer. Watch him here teaching a crowd how to sing “Salt Peanuts.” Balliett’s brief description of Gillespie from more than half a century ago jibes with my experience: “A mild-mannered, roundish man, who wears thick-rimmed spectacles and a small goatee, and has a new-moon smile and a muffled, potatoey way of speaking.”
In an essay about the trumpeter Fats Navarro, whose playing Balliett finds superior to Gillespie’s, he writes: “Gillespie liked to clown and blare and do the fandango up and down his registers. He liked to blow the grass flat and divide the waters.” True, but the thing to remember is that Gillespie wanted to amuse listeners and make them happy – among the artist’s highest callings.
On Jan. 6, 1993, the day Dizzy Gillespie and Rudolf Nureyev died, a friend and I fumed when TV news reported only the latter and only as politics. Gillespie was an American, a jazz musician and 75 years old.