To Be or Not to Bop With Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy GillespieOn this day in 1917, the great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was born. Actually, that kind of under-sells him. He was a whole lot more than that. He was probably the most important person in the development of bebop. And if you think of jazz, you probably think of bebop unless you are just really boring. The great thing about bebop is that it killed swing. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with swing, but it was played out and yes, it was boring.

Bebop was distinct from swing in two primary ways. The first is obvious, even to modern (but careless) ears: it is highly syncopated. I especially like this. I’ve always had a great fascination with what I call “jagged” melodies. This has not endeared my music to others, but I love it. The second distinction is something that I’ve never been very creative about but which I admire as a listener: harmonic complexity. Swing stayed pretty much to standard chords like a 9th: C-E-G-Bb-D. But bebop composers and improvisers — led by Gillespie and Charlie Parker — played with this in a big way. They especially liked to flatten the 5th and 9th. And augment them. So you end up with things that sound quite dissonant and start to lose all standard harmonic structure. For example: C-E-Gb-Bb-Db, which is really just a Gb7 chord with a flatted 5th thrown in on the bass. The theory confuses me, but it sounds great.

Here is “Woody ‘n’ You,” which Gillespie wrote while working with Coleman Hawkins. It is the very dawn of bebop. It still sounds very swing-y. But it is more syncopated and it is introducing more harmonic complexity. But it isn’t making a full break with the past, and indeed, it is an homage to swing band leader Woody Herman.

But let’s jump ahead. Gillespie was also very important in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz. A great, early example of this is “Manteca” — originally recording in 1947, I don’t think any version was released until Afro in 1954. Anyway, here is a great live version from 1970. You also get to see some of his playing:

I’ve had a hard time finding video of Gillespie really letting fly as a performer. There are videos, but they are generally in hour long sets. So you will just have to make due with this performance of “One Note Samba” from a performance in Paris in 1965. It is just amazingly wonderful. But it doesn’t especially highlight Gillespie. Still, listen:

Happy birthday Dizzy Gillespie!

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