Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Dizzy as he was affectionately known was one of the greatest jazz innovators of the twentieth century. His music, Bebop – “Bop” for short, was improvised, with complex and often dissonant chords, and sometimes very rapid tempos. It began in jam sessions in Harlem, and made a dramatic entrance into the music scene in the mid-1940s. Listeners were startled by it, and some traditional jazz musicians even described it as noise. But, it took over the world of jazz rapidly, and as a genre would influence generations of musicians to come.
Nothing so amazing and so influential has been heard in jazz since. Looking back, many writers have focused on Dizzy’s musical genius and technical mastery, but I am going to talk about Dizzy’s love of Cuban music and his connection to Cuban musicians.
Dizzy was born on October 21st, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina, and his father was a bandleader. Dizzy was surrounded by instruments as a young child. He learned to play piano starting at age four and later taught himself trumpet and trombone. He soon became a professional musician. It was while he was playing in Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1940’s that Calloway introduced him to Mario Bauzá. Bauzá was one of the first musicians to introduce Latin music to the United States. He would later connect Dizzy to Luciano Pozo Gonzáles, who was known as Chano Pozo.
Chano Pozo cut a strong and charismatic figure on stage. He could dance and sing as hard as he played conga. Even though it was difficult for them to understand each other. But, Dizzy said in the documentary film, A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba, that they both “spoke Africa.” Dizzy saw him as a brother. Before they met, Cuban music had only an occasional influence on jazz, and vice versa. That would soon change. Dizzy quickly welcomed Chano Pozo as a conguero into his band. And, on September 29th 1947, Pozo and the bongo player Chiquitico performed with Dizzy at a Carnegie Hall concert. As Alyn Shipton wrote in “Groovin’ High: A Life of Dizzy Gillespie”:
“Few collaborations capture the heady excitement, virtuosity … that can be found in “Manteca”, “Cubana-be Cubana-bop” (also known as the Afro-Cuban jazz suite) and “Guarachi Guaro” from the first fruits of Pozo’s tenure with Dizzy’s band.”
Dizzy incorporated much of Chano Pozo’s Santeria chanting into Bop – something that was new, and at times perplexed his fellow musicians, but later caught on. Likewise, bands in Bop had hitherto only a single drummer, but suddenly congas and sometimes a group of Cuban percussionists became a regular component of the music, adding additional excitement and rhythmic spice. Chano Pozo was tragically murdered at the age of only 33, but he left behind a powerful mark on modern jazz that reverberates to this day. Dizzy also recorded several beautiful pieces with the masterful Cuban composer and arranger, Chico O’Farrill, including the album Afro-Cuban jazz moods, on which the well-known Cuban maraca player, Machito, also performed.
Dizzy fell quickly in love with Cuban music. It was a firm embrace. He said several times in different interviews that slaveholders forbade drumming in the United States, yet drumming was kept alive in the South Americas and Caribbean, a drumming that has as its roots Africa. Cuban music is a music with rhythm at its center. The clave rhythm, broken up into a first measure of two notes and a second measure of three or vice versa, finds its origins in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed the word clave means key. And it is used to help organize many Cuban rhythms, including rumba, son, salsa and mambo. Dizzy was no stranger to rhythm. He wrote in his autobiography, “To Be or Not … to Bop” of six prerequisites that all successful musicians must have: mastery of instrument, style, taste, communication, chord progressions and rhythm. “Rhythm,” he wrote, “includes all of the other attributes because you may have all of these others and don’t have the rhythmic sense to put them together, then it would negate all of your other accomplishments.”
The Cuban music that Dizzy fell in love with in the 1940’s would stay with him for the rest of his life. Forty years later, he was invited to headline the fifth international jazz festival in Havana. He described going to Cuba as “coming home.” There, like a loving father, he embraced and nurtured the emerging jazz talents of several younger Cuban musicians, including Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Arturo who is a trumpeter later recounted that he thought Dizzy was expecting to find only a group of great percussionists when he arrived in Cuba, but was a bit surprised to find a trumpeter with some technical prowess.
Dizzy’s love of world music did not stop and rest in Cuba. He travelled the world as part of the Jazz Ambassador program with a band of musicians from all of the Americas on behalf of the United States State Department. They toured South America, the Middle East, and still other countries. He went with a sense of curiosity and openness. But he also felt a deep need for the world to know and to appreciate jazz. He felt the same need in the United States, where racism impeded its acceptance. For Dizzy, music was a delight, he emanated joy from the stage.
In 2002, Gillespie was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to Afro-Cuban music. Dizzy had long embraced the Ba’hai faith. It is no accident that a man who wanted to be remembered not only for his music, but also for his humanitarianism, was so moved by a religion that speaks about the worth of all religions, and the equality and unity of all people.
Author: Dorothy Johnson-Laird
Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist.