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Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Globe and Mail: Dazed by Dizzy

The Globe and Mail: Dazed by DizzySkip navigation

Dazed by Dizzy- By GENE LEES

Saturday, August 27, 2005 Page D8

Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie

By Donald L. Maggin

HarperCollins, 422 pages, $37.95

When the Second World War ended, what was deemed a revolution came to jazz. Primarily the inspiration of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, it had an enormous and disorienting effect on jazz musicians and fans alike. Some loved it, some hated it; among the latter were Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, whose animus lay in the fact that they not only couldn't play it, they couldn't even understand it. Contemptuously called "Chinese music" by some, it wasn't helped by the nickname attached to it: bebop, a term that trivialized the music and, to an extent, still does.

So, for that matter, did the nickname given to John Birks Gillespie: Dizzy. His friends, for the most part, called him Birks. He was an extraordinarily funny man, more so onstage than off, where he was, for the most part, thoughtful and serious, and inordinately kind and generous with his knowledge, the great teacher. He once told me, "I don't know that I know that much, but what I do know, I'm willing to share."

He was occasionally -- by younger and militant black musicians -- called an Uncle Tom, but that he was not. He simply loved to be the merry Andrew on stage, not as sycophancy, but because he liked to make people laugh. He once told me, "If making people laugh makes them more receptive to my music, then I'm going to do it, and I don't care what anyone says."

By those who knew him well, he was more than liked, more than respected: He was loved.

For all the deserved reverence accorded Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, I believe that Dizzy was the greatest jazz musician who ever lived, and one of the greatest musicians of any kind who ever lived. Dizzy was pure genius, equally dazzling in his powers of invention and execution.

But when in high school in St. Catharines, Ont., I heard my first Parker-Gillespie record -- it was Salt Peanuts, a classic example of the hilarious Dadaism Dizzy scattered to the winds -- I thought they were crazy. Some of my friends, however, did not, especially a young trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler, who went on to become a major figure on his instrument and as a composer. If Kenny took Bird, as Parker was called, and Dizzy seriously, I felt it behooved me to find out what he heard in them. When it hit me, it hit me hard.

Reflections on these and collateral matters have come with the issue within weeks of two things. One is a Gillespie-Parker CD of material largely unissued and unknown, drawn from a concert they did in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945, with Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach or (on two tracks) Sidney Catlett on drums. The CD is on Uptown Records (P.O. Box 394, Whitehall, Mich., 49461, U.S.A.), and that so monumentally important a record could be issued by an almost unknown label, when the major labels are doing almost nothing to the arts but damage, is a tragedy. The other is a biography by Donald L. Maggin, Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie.

It contains some good stuff, especially Maggin's exploration of Dizzy's brutalized childhood and roots, going back to the Yoruba people of Africa. British writer and musician Alyn Shipton's 1999 biography Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie did not uncover this much of Dizzy's family background. He avoided technical discussions the reader would not understand. Maggin does address them, and the result is dismaying. It lies in the author's ignorance of music, music theory and music history. Maggin is neither a journalist nor a musician. In fact, he is a creature of politics; he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

There are two (at least) cardinal sins a writer can commit: One is to assume knowledge of the subject in the reader; the other is to assume lack of it. Maggin manages to commit both in the same book.
The centre of the problem is Chapter 11, in which Maggin presumes that every reader is ignorant of harmony and must be taught its essence. It is, of course, a study in which musicians often invest years. And he knows little about it. The chapter is written like pronouncements from Olympus. I had the feeling all the way through that someone had tried to explain the subject to him, probably with a tape recorder running, after which he dutifully transcribed it. So I did some checking.

Donald Maggin took two or three lessons from Jill McManus, a respected New York pianist with a background as a journalist at Time magazine. Mike Longo, who played piano for Dizzy over a period of 20 years and was his close friend, gave Maggin several dissertations, which he taped, on bebop harmony and the change from what had gone before. After these lessons, he presumes to teach us about the harmonic innovations of Gillespie and Parker, which are not innovations at all.

Dizzy once talked with critic and journalist Doug Ramsey about this. Ramsey recalled, "I asked him how harmony changed in the transition to bop, and he said that bop harmonies were not new, that the chord applications he, Bird, Bud Powell and the others used had all been done by Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel. I believe he also mentioned Shostakovich. He said that what really changed with bop was rhythm, and that rhythm -- he didn't use the word 'swing' -- was the most important element in jazz."

Maggin creates the impression that what was done in bebop was unprecedented. Not true, and the "technical" chapter on this subject is, as one musician put it, "eerily naive." The more significant revolution is, as Dizzy said, rhythmic. It was disconcerting when you heard it for the first time, those displacements, phrases starting and stopping in unexpected places.

Maggin writes passages which, after reading them, Allyn Ferguson, film composer and former composition teacher at Stanford, called "gobbledegook." In the egregious Chapter 11, Maggin tells us tthat "the early bebop players loved to spin out lines [his italics, not mine] of notes, melodic statements of odd lengths that ignored the boundaries of bars." So did Artie Shaw and, as Shaw once told me, "In the Mozart A-major quintet, I can show you a phrase that's 11 bars long followed by one that's nine, and they're completely organic."

About the flatted fifth chord that Parker and Gillespie liked, and which mid-1940s lay writers loved to make fun of, Maggin says, "Dizzy discovered the magic of the interval in 1938. . . . The flatted fifth divides the octave exactly in half; for example, a G-flat is equidistant from the two Cs that frame its octave." Oh wow! And did you know that the Earth isn't flat?

The flatted fifth is used mainly in dominant chords. Maggin doesn't mention that a G-7 flat five actually contains not one but two tritones. I guess he never noticed.

If you are a lay reader and don't know what a tritone is, but you are familiar with the West Side Story score, try singing the song Maria. It begins with a tritone: "Mah-reeeeee . . ." The tritone -- once known as "the devil in music" and forbidden in early polyphony -- was not infrequent in the arias of Mozart. And composer Hale Smith assures me that the minor seventh flat-five chord, sometimes called half-diminished, supposedly pioneered by Thelonious Monk (and one of the most poignant chords in all music), also goes back to Mozart.

Maggin gets all bent out of shape over the chromaticism of bebop, again suggesting (by omission of any mention of precedents) that it was introduced by Parker, Gillespie, et al. Apparently he has never heard of Bizet's Variations chromatiques de concert, or Bach's Chromatic Fantasy, written in 1720. Guitarist Jimmy Raney once showed me in a piece of Bach's, a perfect tone row à la Schoenberg, using all 12 tones without a repeat, and that's about as chromatic as you can get. In the early part of the 14th century, the full chromatic scale was discussed by theorists, and it was introduced by Adrian Willaert (1480-1562) and his pupil Cypriano de Rore (1516-65).

Much of the rest of the book recounts material we have already heard, and we can certainly do without yet another resurrection of the story that Charlie Parker saw a dead chicken on the road ahead, stopped, picked it up and cooked it, thereby acquiring the name Yardbird, then Bird. It isn't even certain that the story is true.

Toward the end of the book, Maggin falls into eye-glazing accounts of record dates, personnel and itineraries.

But the problem with biography is that it is subjective, even when written by the most disciplined scholar -- which Maggin is not -- and no form of it is more subjective than autobiography, which is inevitably self-protective. Since much history depends on autobiography, and since much information is lost forever anyway, we are compelled to genuflect to Voltaire's aphorism that history is an agreed-upon fiction. I don't think Dizzy's own autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop, can be considered reliable. If nothing else, his humility and deference to Parker makes some of it questionable. The disservice done by Maggin's book is that it will be quoted by future writers.

Charlie Parker has been accorded more honour than Dizzy, but Dizzy was the great teacher and disseminator. Parker died young of his narcotics habit and drinking. It is easier to praise those who seemed to be miserable than those who lived well, and they make for more dramatic movies, such as Bird (about Parker), Lady Sings the Blues (Billie Holiday) and Lenny (Lenny Bruce). Dizzy lived well, with his loving wife Lorraine, into a goodly age, and died with friends such as trumpeter Jon Faddis at his side, and one of his records, an excellent compendium of his mature work called Dizzy's Diamonds, playing near his bed.

But if you want to know what the mid-1940s furor was about, get the Town Hall record. I consider it a major piece of musical documentation.

Dorothy Parker once wrote of a book that it should not be casually tossed aside: "It should be thrown with great force." One is tempted to say the same of Maggin's biography.

Well, it's not quite that bad.

Four times winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Canadian author Gene Lees has written 16 books on music, including biographies of Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman and, most recently, Johnny Mercer. He lives in California.

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