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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Somewhere there's democracy; how high the moon

Dizzy Gillespie

Ken Blanchard offered some welcoming words at my return to blogging, and I appreciate them. He noted our shared love of jazz, and noted that he has instituted a web log on jazz, for which I heartily commend him and hope to enjoy the exchange of information on America's original art form.

Ken notes my fondness for the Prez, Lester Young, one of the great innovators on tenor sax, and mentions him as a special favorite of mine. Actually, there are few jazz musicians who aren't special favorites. He also mentions Miles Davis.

If I hold special favor toward any jazz musicians, it is trumpet players. I was/am one. If my fingers were working, I might still put on a CD and play a few choruses with one of the masters--for my ears only, however.

Miles Davis was a lyric minimalist whose renditions are still the most listened to classics among jazz lovers. But I guess the figure for whom I have special reverence is Dizzy Gillespie. As a young man, I decided not to pursue the trumpet as a career because he made me realize there was talent out there I could never approach. As an aspiring trumpet player, I realized there existed virtuosity and talent I could not approach. Dizzy was by no means the only musician to inspire some intense self-assessment of my own prospects, but he broke the limits that the instrument was presumed to possess. He did things with the trumpet that had b een considered musically impossible. He was also an exceptionally witty and funny man, an entertainment genius, and he composed some of most enduring jazz classics.

He was the epitome of what I learned was a fundamental of playing jazz. That fundamental was explained at a college jazz club meeting when I was an undergraduate which featured a former member of a band led by the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke . A student said he had heard of a musical confrontation between Bix and Louis Armstrong. The old banjo player said if the two ever appeared together, it wouldn't be for the purpose of trying to cut each other down; it would be to see how good they could play together to make music. They might challenge each other to higher levels of creativity, but they wouldn't try to compete for superiority. If you think jazz is a contest, you don't understand it, he said. Jazz is a matter of musical contribution, not seeing who is better than someone else.

Over the years, I have seen and heard Dizzy with many groups, and while his solos were always spectacular, so was his effort to support the ensemble and other soloists to reach for musical heights. The last time I saw him he was touring with the Northern Illinois University jazz band. He set the standard, he joined the ensemble in a way that moved it to swinging discipline, he prodded the young musicians to devote themselves to the creation of music, not the display of their egos. Musicians of talent do have a struggle with not letting their egos get in the way of the music. Dizzy was constantly busy nudging the brass section with his trumpet, spurring the reeds with his voice, amplifying the rhythm section with a multitude of percussion instruments he found in Africa and South America. He worked constantly to intensify the jazz experience.

A story that demonstrates the "jazz ethic" concerns a concert that Dizzy and other masters of hard Bop organized to help a beleaguered Charlie Parker. Parker had been institutionalized for his addictions. He had hocked his alto sax. Gillespie and others got his instrument out of pawn and organized and promoted a huge concert in Canada that drew fans from all of North America.
Parker played some of his most brilliant music that night. But there was Dizzy behind it all giving Parker all the support and musical challenge possible, and prodding the other musicians to do likewise. It was a legendary moment in music and re-established Parker as one of the most formidable players of jazz.

Behind that concert was the element not well understood about jazz and the black experience which is part of the art form. It has to do with working in concert to achieve those things that benefit everybody. It is a music of freedom and democracy. No one played it better than Dizzy.


Douglas said...

If you can't play the trumpet, teach journalism?

Sorry about that, and good to see you are at least getting back into typing form again.

David Newquist said...

I practiced journalism for 13 years then became a professor of English and taught journalism among other writing and literary courses. I did not quit playing the trumpet, but took my place as a side man who had the pleasure of some intensely swinging moments in some brass sections and small combos.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States