Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespieby Donald L. Maggin
Dizzy Gillespie secured his place in the jazz pantheon as one of the most expressive and virtuosic improvisers in the history of music. More important is that he was one of its great innovators. As a primary creator of the bebop and Afro-Cuban revolutions, he twice changed the way improvisation was fundamentally done. And by combining electrifying musicianship,
Dizzy Gillespie secured his place in the jazz pantheon as one of the most expressive and virtuosic improvisers in the history of music. More important is that he was one of its great innovators. As a primary creator of the bebop and Afro-Cuban revolutions, he twice changed the way improvisation was fundamentally done. And by combining electrifying musicianship, infectious warmth, and rare comedic skills, he achieved a worldwide popularity few jazz musicians have ever enjoyed.
This is the enthralling saga of Dizzy Gillespie a chronicle of the rise of a jazz genius from the lowest rung of the social order to the highest pinnacle of respect and ability that brings Harlem's golden after-hours era, the raucous 52nd Street scene, of the forties, the barrios of Havana and Rio, the White House, and the world's great concert halls to glorious life.
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The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie
Bathed in Music
John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie almost vomited from exhaustion as he picked cotton for the first time outside his hometown of Cheraw, South Carolina, in the summer of 1928. He was ten years old, and he hated it.
Those close to him called him John Birks, John, or sometimes Birks. To the world at large, he was Dizzy, a nickname he acquired, as I will describe, when he was eighteen. To keep things simple, I will call him Dizzy throughout this book.
Cheraw is surrounded by a fertile, nearly flat plain 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and just south of the North Carolina border. Cotton was planted on more than 75 percent of the land in 1928, and the landscape was dominated by its large white fields, which were separated at intervals by stands of commercial pine. Working those fields was a rite of passage for Dizzy and other southern blacks in an era when cotton was king.
Blacks represented roughly 1,300 of Cheraw's 3,700 citizens, and picking cotton was almost the only private employment available to them. A few labored in sawmills or brick factories, fewer still were artisans or owned food stores and other small businesses, and some of the women found employment as domestics in the homes of wealthy whites.
The only form of public employment for blacks was teaching, because the white power structure monopolized jobs with the police and fire departments, the road-maintenance gangs, and the court system. Ten blacks taught at the town's segregated Robert Smalls School. Cheraw spent roughly forty dollars per year educating each white student and less than ten dollars on each black. If you were strong and worked for ten hours, you could pick 150 pounds of cotton, and during the 1920s your labor would net you seventy-five cents.
Dizzy was a short, skinny kid when he joined his large and robust older brother Wesley in the fields that late summer day in 1928. Following the lead of the other field hands, Dizzy got down on his hands and knees to pull the white blossoms from their pods and in a continuous motion toss them into a sack that was strapped across his chest and hung down his back. He soon felt nauseous crawling in the ninety-five-degree heat, inhaling and coughing up dust laden with bits of fertilizer and insecticide. He gulped water, poured some over his head to cool off, and lay down to rest.
After he went back to work, he came close to crying as he cut his hands several times on the sharp, rigid fronds that encased the blossoms. The nausea returned. He lay down again. Got up and worked. Lay down. By midafternoon, he was exhausted and totally miserable.
When your sack was full, you emptied it into a larger one and went back to picking. Dizzy never filled his sack. His harvest was 15 pounds, which garnered him a measly eight cents. He was furious at the world, at himself, and at Wesley who had gathered a respectable 125 pounds and had earned more than sixty cents.
After they returned home, Dizzy told his mother, "I wasn't cut out for picking cotton. Someday I'm gonna be a musician, and you'll be proud of me."
Becoming a musician was not a far-fetched ambition for the boy, because he had been bathed in music from birth. His father, James, who had died from a sudden asthma attack the year before when Dizzy was nine, was a bricklayer who also led a dance band.
Music was an important emotional and creative outlet for the black families of Cheraw, and many of them, including Dizzy's, laboriously saved their dimes and quarters to buy pianos and other instruments. Dizzy's boyhood friend John Motley, who went on to become the accompanist of contralto Marian Anderson and a distinguished choir director, remembered, "We couldn't vote; we couldn't use the library. And they drummed into us that menial labor was our lot. All we had was school, the church, and music. And our black public school didn't really meet our needs because it ended in the ninth grade; the whites'sc hools went on through the twelfth. So it was the church and music."2 Motley's aunt, Lucile McIver, confirmed his sentiments: "When Dizzy and John came along, every parent had a teacher give their child music lessons. You were in a hopeless condition and that lifted your spiritsthe songs and the music and whatnot. It was part of your spiritual life. Everybody could play a piano and everybody had a piano. Every house.You would go out to parties, and you would sit around and entertain yourselves."
James Gillespie purchased an upright piano so large that he had half the side of his home torn out to bring the instrument in, and Dizzy loved to sit on the floor and look up at his dad pounding out piano choruses as he ran his band through rehearsals. The house was full of instruments -- a drum set, a mandolin, a guitar, a clarinet, and a bass fiddle -- because James was fearful that his musicians might pawn them between gigs. James spent every spare penny on his instruments, and though he led his band from the piano, he taught himself to play all the others.
Dizzy enjoyed fondling the dark burnished string bass and the shiny guitar, and at age three he was already exploring melodies on the piano and playing precise rhythmic patterns on the drums. James was pleased because Dizzy was the only one of his seven children who exhibited any musical talent.
Dizzy's parents were serious Christians, and almost from birth he imbibed music in large quantities at two nearby black churches. The Gillespies worshipped at United Methodist, a large red brick structure that Dizzy could reach by running through a backyard, and he was an almost obsessive visitor at the small, wooden Sanctified Church eight doors from his home on Huger Street ...Dizzy
The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie. Copyright © by Donald Maggin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Donald L. Maggin is the author of Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz. A writer and businessman, he has produced jazz concerts by such artists as Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Roland Hanna, Eubie Blake, and Roberta Flack. He was a board member of the American Jazz Orchestra, served in the Carter White House for three years, is an editor of the literary journal The Reading Room, and is a trustee of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
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