Dizzy Gillespie was one of the most important and best-loved musicians in jazz history. With his horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, jive talk, and upraised trumpet bell, he was the hipster who most personified bebop. The musical heir to Louis Armstrong, he created the modern jazz trumpet-playing style and dazzled aficionados and popular audiences alike for over 50 years.
In this first full biography, Alyn Shipton covers all aspects of Dizzy's remarkable life and career, taking us through his days as a flashy trumpet player in the swing bands of the 1930s, his innovative bebop work in the 1940s, the worldwide fame and adoration he earned through his big band tours in the 1950s, and the many recordings and performances which defined a career that extended into the early 1990s. Along the way, Shipton convincingly argues that Gillespierather than Charlie Parker as is widely believedhad the greatest role in creating bebop, playing in key jazz groups, teaching the music to others, and helping to develop the first original bebop repertory. Shipton also explores the dark side of Dizzy's mostly sunny personal life, his womanizing, the illegitimate daughter he fathered and supportednow a respected jazz singer in her own rightand his sometimes needless cruelty to others.
For anyone interested in jazz and one of its most innovative and appealing figures, Groovin' High is essential reading.
About the Author
Alyn Shipton presents jazz programs for the BBC and is a jazz critic for The Times in London. For many years he was a music publisher, seeing into print the autobiographies of numerous jazz musicians including Barney Bigard, Buck Clayton, Andy Kirk and Rex Stewart. He has written biographies of Fats Waller and Bud Powell, and has edited the memoirs of Danny Barker and Doc Cheatham.
Read an Excerpt
The Boy from Cheraw
The sight of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, the bell of his upswept trumpet pointing skyward, his cheeks distended into hamster-like pouches, and his ubiquitous beret, goatee, horn-rimmed spectacles, and pinstripe suit, became the archetypal image of a jazz musician. Even when he forsook these trappings in favor of African robes and headgear, or crisp tweed jackets and casual sweaters, Dizzy's presence was synonymous with style and his playing synonymous with jazz. From his first visit to France with Teddy Hill as a gauche nineteen year old to overseas tours with his own band in the 1950s, Dizzy became an indefatigable musical ambassador, a passion that never left him right up until the days of his United Nation Orchestra in the late 1980s. When Dizzy died in January 1993, the world lost the man who had taken over Louis Armstrong's role as the father figure of the music; it also lost one of the major innovators in what became known as the modern jazz or "bebop" revolution of the 1940s.
Perhaps because of Dizzy's longevity compared to bebop's other principal character, Charlie Parker, who burned out at the age of thirty-four in 1955, and perhaps also because of his cheerful demeanor and obvious talents as a showman and entertainer, his contribution to jazz's major revolutionary movement has been consistently underrated. Yet in many ways he was a far more wide-ranging, original, and innovative musician than Parker, possessed of a similarly miraculous instrumental talent, but with a ruthless determination to achieve and, for much of his life, a clear sense ofdirection. At a stage when Parker had retreated to relative obscurity in the Midwest, Dizzy pioneered small group bebop on New York's 52nd Street and then went on to pursue his dream of transferring the style to a big band format. With Chano Pozo (who was dramatically murdered at the height of his career), Dizzy developed Afro-Cuban jazz, and later, with pianist and composer Lalo Schifrin, he produced major works for the concert hall and took a hand in the bossanova craze. From a background of grinding poverty he developed a reputation for financial astuteness, yet poured a fortune into keeping his big band going. He was also a respected teacher and inspiration for many younger players, and passed on many of his technical and musical ideas to a new generation that included such disciples as Jon Faddis and Arturo Sandoval.
Beneath the professionalism, his craft as a bandleader honed by long years in the swing bands of leaders like Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder, and Earl Hines, Dizzy remained an enigmat. Outwardly, his lifestyle was in sharp contrast to the self-destructive lives of other beboppers like Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. He enjoyed a stable marriage for over half a century and seemed always to be on the best of terms with his fellow musicians, who appeared universally to adore him. Yet, dig a little deeper and this turns out to be only part of the picture. Dizzy had a penchant for womanizing, he kindled unprecedented animosity among a number of his colleagues, and he had a mean streak that could surface without warning and was by no means restricted to the copious practical jokes for which he became well known during his days with Cab Calloway.
A man of formidable intelligence, who was a keen chess player and a master of the complex arts of composition and arranging, Dizzy often found it impossible to resist the challenge of putting himself one up on an opponent, even after he had outwardly espoused the benign principles of Baha'i; yet others found him so generous with his time and ideas that it became impossible to repay his kindness.
Drummer Kenny Clarke, for example, had no doubts: "Dizzy is different; he's a saint ... and he was an extraordinary musician, too, just on the verge of genius, in some ways more than a genius. He gave a lot more of himself than any musician I know ofmuch more than Bird [Charlie Parker], because Bird was like a prophet who brings a message, leaves that message and then disappears."
Yet this describes the same man who broke off from a long, serious interview on his career to tell English critic Charles Fox: "I'm staying at the Mayfair Hotel, and there's a guy down there, one of the hall porters, that plays backgammon. From about five years ago, he's been promising me to teach me how to play this game, you see. Now I've learned it by myself, and he doesn't know that I know it. So what I'm going to do, I'm going to go down and make him get out the backgammon set, saying, 'Maybe you'll teach me now?'
"He's going to think this is the first time, because I'm going to say 'How do you set it up?' I'm not going to know how to set up the board or anything, and he's going to have to explain to me: 'Now when you throw this, boom, you have to move here,' and "This doesn't look too hot, maybe this would be better?'
"And then I'm going to kill him, so he says, 'Boy, and I thought I was a good player!'"
Few people would go so far out of their way to play a practical joke, and there are plenty of other instances. Dizzy was most fond of recalling his duo session with Oscar Peterson, for Pablo in 1974, when he arrived well ahead of the agreed time for the recording and had completed his warm-up before Peterson arrived. From years of Jazz at the Philharmonic tours together, Peterson knew that Dizzy needed a number or two to get going, so he relaxed when he saw Dizzy stretched out and apparently asleep behind the studio door. He could barely keep up when Dizzy sprang into the opening number, "Caravan." Having related this, Dizzy would then go into paroxysms of laughter at the discomfiture he had caused.
These complexities of Dizzy's character never stood in the way of his achievement in becoming the elder statesman of jazz. As fellow trumpeter Joe Newman observed, "If there's anyone to follow Louis in the public's mind and eye, it will be Dizzy Gillespie, in spite of his clowning." The public loved him almost from the moment he began to lead his own bands in the 1940s, and at its height the bebop craze rivaled Beatlemania. Hordes of fans would turn up at Dizzy's concerts in lookalike berets and horn-rimmed glasses. His generous extrovert character contributed to the lives of many fellow musicians, including Dave Brubeck, who recalled: "When my kids were still quite young they were with me at the  Newport Jazz Festival. I was on stage when the riot began. It was Dizzy who rounded up my children who were out front and herded them to safety backstage. He kept them with him until my wife and I could escort them safely out of the festival grounds. A number of years later, when my sons Darius, Chris, and Dan were performing with me at the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, Dizzy decided to take them on a sightseeing tour of the Riviera. According to my sons' description, it was like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disney World, but in spite of being scared to death, [they] had the wildest most joyful time of their lives." Yet other musicians, including many disposed to adore him, fell foul of the perverse side of his nature, such as English bassist Dave Green, who showed Dizzy a rare 78-rpm recording in the band room at Ronnie Scott's, only to look on aghast as Dizzy smashed the disc.
This was bizarre behavior indeed, but part of a pattern that led more than one commentator to the conclusion that Dizzy was "crazy as a fox," outwardly zany (and clearly not always in total control) but simultaneously a shrewd operator who meticulously filed away in his mind any shred of fact or information that might come in handy some day.
So what were the elements that went to make up this complex man: one of the most gifted trumpeters in musical history, one of jazz's great original thinkers, and, in later life, the guardian of the whole jazz tradition?
Dizzy's contradictory character, his instrumental prowess, and his will to succeed all have their origins in his childhood in the small South Carolina town of Cheraw, where he was born John Birks Gillespie on October 21, 1917. It was then, as it is now, a sleepy backwater on the Pee Dee River, referred to in tourist literature as "alive with the grace of the Old South on its shaded streets." The town was laid out in 1768, and its Episcopal church of St. David was the last prerevolutionary church built in the Carolinas during the reign of George III. John Birks was the youngest of nine Gillespie children (of whom there were seven survivors), and the family lived at 335 Huger Street, a north-south thoroughfare that runs down toward Market Street with its town green and Cheraw's fine collection of pre-Civil War buildings.
The "Old South" and its antebellum grace were always the last things on Gillespie's mind when he was interviewed about his childhooda period, incidentally, that predates his nickname "Dizzy." He was known until he reached Philadelphia in 1935 as John Birks, or some phonetic variation of that name.
"I was scared," he recalled. "Scared of my father. He was super austere, and never showed emotion. He'd give me a whipping every Sunday morning, me and my brothers, for what we had done bad during the week. Some weeks we didn't do anything, but we still got a whipping, so I began to spend the week doing something to get the whipping for. I guess people thought I was pretty bad, something of a gangster. I'd be throwing rocks, chewing gum and sticking it in girls' hair, and fighting every day.
"The only time my father spoke up for me was when I got into trouble on my first day at school for whistling in the class. I could already read, count, and do my alphabet backwards, so when I got to school I just whistled. The teacher, Mrs. Miller, beat me and my father got furious. I didn't know the rules of school, but I knew there was going to be trouble. But when he went to see the teacher that was the only time he ever spoke up for me."
John Birks's father, James Gillespie, was a member of a family well established in the Cheraw area. Many cousins still live in the region, as do members of John Birks's mother, Lottie's, family, the Powes. Seventeen years separated John Birks and his eldest brother Edward Leroy (known as Sonny), and they never got to know one another because Sonny left home early and died by 1935. The next brother, James Penfold Jr., ran away from home when John Birks was three or four years old, although they later shared a room in New York City, where "J. P.," as he was known, did various casual jobs and eventually became a cabdriver. John's three sistersMattie, Hattie, and Eugenialived at home for most of his childhood, but he was closest in age and temperament to his youngest brother, Wesley, who had been born in March 1915. Because of John's quick intelligence, he soon caught up the two school years that separated him from Wesley, and (after the initial embarrassment and knock to Wesley's pride) they went through grade school together.
James Gillespie Sr. seems to have been just as contradictory a character as his son John was later to become. He was a bricklayer or "brickmason" by trade, working hard all week; then on Saturdays he transformed into a musician, playing piano with the local band, whose instruments were stored at the Gillespie house. Yet this respected local builder and musician was also the harsh and sadistic father who regularly beat his children. He was so cruel to J. P. when the boy worked with him on a building site that the family's second son ran away. It is tempting to attribute John Birks's own mean streak to his father's behavior and personality (not to mention his uncles, who had reputations as hotheads), but there is also evidence from the adult Dizzy himself that part of his drive as a musician came from a desire to prove his worth to his father, even though James died in 1927.
"I don't remember exactly what my father played. But he had all the instruments, piano, drums, the only bass violin in townthey weren't playing it in jazz at that time, they were still using tubasand he had a mandolin and clarinet. My mother said he played them all. It's a drag he didn't live to see me become a musician. He died when I was ten, and I hadn't really begun to show an interest in music then. I always enjoyed music though, and when I was two and a half I used to fool around on the piano, playing 'Coon Shine Lady.' I always did have a fascination for the piano through my whole life."
In countless interviews, variations on these views emerge. The adult Dizzy always admitted that he ran scared of his father, yet balanced this with a grudging admiration for the man who had been the only other musician in the family and a sorrow that they never got to share this experience. James forced all the other children to take piano lessons, but none of them stuck to music after their childhood.
The only contemporary on whom John Birks didn't vent his own pugnacious character as he grew up was his brother Wesley. "I used to fight anybody, big, small, white or colored. I was just a devil, a strong devil. I could whip all the guys my brother's size, but I never could whip him. I guess he knew my secrets." In his brother, John Birks found someone who could depend on him emotionally. He helped Wesley overcome violent nightmaresoften on the subject of the "wood man," a spectacularly ugly old white man who sold wood and was an object of terror for all the neighborhood children. On one such occasion, Wesley's nocturnal thrashing about in terror was sufficiently severe that he knocked over a pitcher of water and cut his hand so badly that he was unable to go to his regular weekend job at "Son" Harrington's Shoe Shop and Ice Cream Parlor. John Birks took his brother's place, shining shoes and serving portions of ice cream.
As it turned out, John Birks's initial education came from Son's wife, Mrs. Amanda Harrington. The Harringtons and their son James (known as "Brother") lived virtually next door at 329 Huger Street. Between their houses were two vacant lots, and as a small child John would run through them to his neighbors' home, where Amanda, a retired schoolteacher, taught him to read and write before he arrived at kindergarten.
Outside his instrument-filled home, the earliest other musical influence on John Birks was the church. The Harringtons were one of only two black families in Cheraw to be Catholics, and their religion was remote to the Gillespies, who were Methodists. Although one of the Methodist elders had a son, John Burch (whose name was often confused with John Birks's), who played snare drum, the real influence came from the Sanctified Church further up Huger Street, where the sounds of gospel music swelled out during the weekly meetings. As the adult Dizzy was often to say (and to prove in his playing), the rural blues had no impact on him because he never came into contact with it, but the rhythmical handclapping and singing of the Sanctified Church left a lasting impression.
Little or nothing is known about the music played by James Gillespie's band. In later life, Dizzy recalled the instruments rather than the music they played, and his only other childhood memory of music was his maternal grandfather "putting on a show" in the yard near their house. So it seems that it was at the Robert Smalls School in Cheraw where music really took hold of him. By the time it did, his father had died suddenly from an asthma attack in 1927. The year before his death, he had paid to send his two youngest sons and their mother to Philadelphia and New York, where there were various members of the extended family. Not least because of the multitudinous varieties of ice cream available up North, John Birks knew that this was where he wanted to end up in later life, but after his father's death the family was left in such abject poverty that the prospect seemed unlikely.
Lottie Gillespie (who had devoted her life to bringing up the family's many children) began taking in washing and earning a living of a kind, but her entire savings vanished when the head of the local bank absconded with most of the town's money at the start of the Depression, leaving the family destitute. At the same time, without the stern beatings from his father, and facing a penniless future, John Birks became wilder and more uncontrollable, picking fights and carrying out pointless feats of derring-do.
He had passed through kindergarten, first, and second grades rapidly and without major incident, except for his penchant for getting into scrapes and fights. But once he had been left fatherless, it was his third grade teacher, Miss Alice Wilson, who took him in hand, acting as a mentor for him and eventually gaining the boy's confidence to take an interest in his academic work. "I was a good English student," he recalled, "for the simple reason that that was the easiest subject to me. I very seldom made a grammatical mistake, like putting a future tense where a past is supposed to be, and those kind of things. I learned very thoroughly there in school."
Gillespie never failed to pay tribute to Alice Wilson in later life, praising her as "the young woman who started me off; the cause of my being in music ... who took an ornery cuss who's not worth a dime from the start."
The event that precipitated John Birks into a musical career was the arrival at the school around early 1929 of a collection of musical instruments donated by the state. These were farmed out to pupils who expressed an interest, and the eleven-year-old John Birks was allocated a trombone. "Everyone wanted an instrument, but the bigger ones got the chance to get what they wanted. I was too small to reach fifth position on the trombone, but I was so eager I'd even have taken a harmonica. I taught myself scales by using my ear." Before long, Alice Wilson had formed a little band to play for the morning "march in" to the schoolroom and also for a show at least once a year that featured her pupils singing, playing, and dancing. She played the piano herself. "She couldn't read music," Gillespie remembered, "but she was a very gifted composer with a good ear. She'd hear songs on the radio and pick them out. We had a little minstrel show at school ... and she taught us all the tunes, made arrangements of them, entirely by ear, telling each of us: 'Here's the note you play!'"
Without the stern presence of his father at home, John Birks practiced his trombone long and loudly. That Christmas, James "Brother" Harrington, the boy next door, was given a trumpet. It was an object of interest for him, but one of utter fascination for his younger neighbor, John Birks: "I saw it on the Christmas treea long shiny silver-plate trumpet. I saw that horn and went crazy.
"'Go ahead and try it!' said James.
"He let me practice on it, and I'd keep on running next door to play. If either of us made too much noise, then we'd just run across to the other person's house and carry on. I became pretty fair at the trumpet."
Within a short time, it became obvious to Miss Wilson that John Birks would have to be given a school trumpet to play, and he became a regular member of her little group with trumpet, trombone, snare and bass drums, and herself at the piano. The adult Dizzy often paid tribute to the band's bass drummer, Wes Buchanan, who subsequently led the band when it was booked to play engagements away from school. "I never have heard anyone since play the bass drum in a jazz orchestra like this guy. He'd sit and play it with one knee up against the head. Whenever he wanted a different sound, he'd move his knee forward or back, just like some guys do today with their elbow."
Even in 1930, when he started to play in the school band, John Birks never received any formal training on the trumpet. Given the formidable heights to which he took trumpet technique in the 1940s, playing faster, higher, and more accurately than any brass player before him, in any sphere of music, the fact that his formative years were entirely without any kind of training makes this achievement utterly remarkable. Yet every available source confirms that this was the case: because his schoolteacher, Alice Wilson, was musically illiterate and there were no experienced brass players around to pass on hints about technique to the young boy, everything he learned about the instrument he either taught himself or discovered in trial-and-error sessions with Brother Harrington. He soon learned Miss Wilson's limitations when Sonny Matthews, the pianist son of a neighbor, invited him to jam and John Birks discovered he could only play in the key of B flat, the one key in which his teacher played the piano. Another self-taught musician might have been daunted by this discovery, but for John Birks it held no terrors: "I said, 'Boy, I'm going to learn how to play in those other keys.'"
He taught himself harmony, working out scales and chords at the piano and applying what he learned to the trumpet. He also started to play alongside his cousin, Norman Powe, a trombonist, and the two boys used each other as practice partners, trying every new scale or harmony together. Powe had had a few lessons from another relative and painstakingly taught his cousin to read music, initially in the bass clef used by the trombone. John Birks worked out for himself how to decipher the treble clef and then tried to pass on some of his knowledge to his fellow young musicians, including pianist Bernis or Bernie Tillman, whom the boys cajoled into playing at a dance for a neighboring white school, and who then joined the group regularly for local dances and parties within a few miles' radius of Cheraw. "We played for house rent parties and things like that in Cheraw, and we played for high school dances," remembered Gillespie.
Whether or not he was booked to perform, John Birks made efforts to get to as many of these events as possible, and, if he was not required to play trumpet, he would show off elaborate dance steps in the hope of earning some small change. The bass drummer Wes Buchanan doubled as a dancer with the band and it was common for the touring bands that occasionally visited the area to bring with them novelty dancers to prance about in front of the musicians. John Birks learned at an early age how to move in front of a group, as well as the principles of showmanship. He subsequently never had difficulty in dancing to even his most revolutionary musical experiments, and his own bandleading always owed something to his early passion for dancing. His relaxed movements around the stage mirrored those of fellow bandleaders such as Tiny Bradshaw or, later, Illinois Jacquet, who both began their careers as dancers.
There were not many other prospects for earning money for a young man about to leave junior high school during the Depression. With nothing else on the horizon, when John Birks left school in 1933 he followed most of his contemporaries into the obvious sources of local employmentthe cotton fields and the job creation projects run on a massive scale throughout the impoverished south by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that had been set up to build roads and public buildings. "I did work on the WPA," he recalled, "but I didn't pick cotton too well."
Many of his fellow black workers in the fields and on the roads had no prospects of looking any further for their eventual employment. The adult Dizzy was to recall that few of them, including some of his own brothers, were literate, and what little opportunity there was for manual labor was the only work going. It was not much better for those who could read and write well. Although there were high schools in the area for white students, there were almost none for black pupils. One of the very few was about thirty miles or so away in North Carolina, at Laurinburg, and it was here that a lucky chance gave John Birks an educational opportunity.
The Laurinburg Institute was a coeducational boarding and day college, catering to black students from ninth grade upward. It had about two hundred on the roll and had been founded in 1904 by Frank McDuffy, who still owned and ran the school in the 1930s. It was established on the principle of a trade school, similar to the pioneering Tuskegee College in Alabama, where pianist Teddy Wilson's parents were teachers. Wilson observed that that school's intake included "adults up to the age of twenty ... still on the elementary level, because of conditions under which Negroes were living in the southern states of the U.S. in those days."
Laurinburg drew some of its staff from Tuskegee and both schools offered generous scholarships to exceedingly poor students who showed promise, as well as the opportunity to earn money toward the cost of fees or living expenses by working on the school farm. The wife of the school's founder, Mrs. E. M. McDuffy, was interviewed in 1975 at the age of ninety-four and said: "I had very high hopes of my students. I wanted them to be best at mixing with people, at living with people, and not be ashamed of being black. At that time, they didn't know anything about those things. They would come to me and sit round in big groups and listen to me.... I told them the story of Booker T. Washington, of Tuskegee and Hampton, Virginia, and schools like that, and how people gave their lives for higher education, their hands as well as their heads. People who can do things can be somebody."
The McDuffys' own son (Frank Jr., who much later took over the running of the school) had been one of the school's most promising musicians, a trombonist. He and his cousin, Isaac Johnson, a trumpeter, had left in June 1933, creating two vacancies for brass players in the school band, and one of John Birks's neighbors, Catherine McKay, recommended him and his cousin Norman Powe to Mr. McDuffy as possible replacements. The cousins were accepted, and, in view of their impoverished backgrounds, both were taken in during September 1933 on a scholarship basis, without fees, although John Birks did some work on the school farm.
Besides continuing some of the academic work John Birks had begun at school in Cheraw, the trade school element of Laurinburg meant that he had to study a vocational course. Because he had done manual work in the fields round Cheraw and now worked on the Laurinburg farm, the choice was more or less made for him: "Agriculture was an easy subject, and I didn't have to spend too much time studying agriculture. ... I made good grades and I didn't have to study, because I knew all about those things. You see, I worked on the farm. I plowed, I know how to plow. I know how to protect the soil from generation to generation, and what to plant. Like you make a winter cover crop, they call it, like clover, and in the spring you plow that under, and it ferments and it causes good fertilizer. If anybody wants to find out about the art of farming, see me, because I'm a master farmer! ... I was very close to the soilI used to sleep out on the soil a lot! I loved being out, but boy, there was some hard work down there in North Carolina, you know, picking cotton ain't no easy job."
Reading between the lines of this and and other accounts of his time at Laurinburg, John Birks was still desperately poor. Although his tuition fees and board were taken care of, he recalls borrowing clothes from other students and joining the football team (in which he showed some considerable determination and ability) because the footballers received better food. (During the 1933-34 season, he abandoned football on the advice of the school's band coach, Shorty Hall, who pointed out that no would-be trumpeter should ever risk his teeth on the football field.) The farm was the easiest and most obvious source of sufficient extra income to pay for clothes and shoes and he spent the entire summer of 1934, between semesters, working there. The other ready source of income, however, was music.
Nominally, John Birks was on a music scholarship and the Institute's music teacher (who arrived some time after John Birks) was a proficient cornet player. For the first time in his life, it seemed that another brass player might be available to coach Gillespie, but Shorty Hall's time was spent helping young players who had far less knowledge than John Birks and so, ironically, he found himself once more responsible for his own musical education. "I was mostly interested in music, and then there was nobody to teach me, so I had to practice all the time by myself. This other guy, Norman Powe, and I practiced incessantly. Man, we would wake up people early in the morning, midnight, and they made us shut up, but we practiced!"
At least part of this practice was on John Birks's original instrument, the piano. Norman Powe remembers him playing with the school band and beginning a party trick that he was to continue for much of his lifejumping across from the trumpet section to play on the piano. Besides the school band, John Birks and Norman Powe continued to play whenever they could with their old colleagues from Cheraw, and complicated transport arrangements were made with relatives or friends who could provide cars. The summers from the Laurinburg years involved plenty of musical dances, picnics, and parties, and John Birks got something of a reputation for disappearing into the fields with girls. On one memorable occasion he lost his mouthpiece when the arrival of an established boyfriend scared him away from a particular young lady with whom he was in a clinch. A showman and dancer, he was popular with girls, one of whom apparently even planned briefly to entrap him to the altar.
It is hard to assess exactly what musical influences affected John Birks while he was at Laurinburg. For reasons that will become clear in subsequent chapters, he did not fall under the influence of Roy Eldridge at this stage, as he was often to claim in print. Gillespie himself said, "I wasn't hip to King Oliver and I knew very little about Louis Armstrong." Yet these comments were made at a time when Gillespie wanted to be regarded as the heir to Roy Eldridge rather than the less fashionable figure of Armstrong. From comments made by other musicians about his playing when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1935, it seems that, in common with almost every other aspiring jazz trumpeter, John Birks had fallen under Armstrong's sway.
In the story of recorded jazz, Armstrong's revolutionary recordings with Joe "King" Oliver and then with his own Hot Five and Hot Seven from the mid-1920s, cut in Chicago at the start of a brief flowering of what became known as "classic jazz" on record, proved immensely influential. In his hometown of New Orleans, Armstrong's every disc was sought out and copied by his admirersmen like trumpeter Lee Collins who followed him into King Oliver's band. All over the United States, musicians interested in jazz, which was still a relatively new music, began to interpret the pop songs of the day in the idiom of their favorite recording or broadcasting artists.
By the early 1930s, when John Birks went to Laurinburg, jazz in Chicago and New York had moved on a few steps. Bigger ensembles than Oliver or Armstrong's pioneering small groups were commonplace, generally made up of around ten players, and the rigid two-beat style of the 1920s was being replaced by the smooth four-beats-to-the-measure rhythms of prototype swing bands. Tubas were replaced by double basses, banjos by guitars, and rolling snare drums by lighter cymbals.
Outside the main urban centers of the North, however, these changes took place slowly and sporadically, and we can be reasonably sure from John Birks's own account of heating tubas rather than double basses and from discs made in the region at the time that in the Carolinas the prevailing orthodoxy in popular dance bands was the late 1920s style of big band jazz, as played in Chicago by bands like Tiny Parham, Erskine Tate, or Earl Hines, in New York by Duke Ellington, Luis Russell, and Fletcher Henderson, or in Detroit by McKinney's Cotton Pickers. By 1929, though, there was unquestionably one major figure who would have been a predominant influence on any would-be trumpeter almost anywhere in North America: Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong's playing and singing were widely available on disc and he had broadcast regularly over several networks starting with relays from New York's Connie's Inn in 1929. Louis's gravelly vocals were widely imitated (according to guitarist Danny Barker, they were the envy of many a trumpeter) and so was his bravura trumpet style, with its effortless high notes and beautifully balanced phrasing.
Not only was this influence felt via records or the radio, but also through oral transmission from players who themselves had heard Armstrong and been influenced by him. This is likely to have been the main route of stylistic influence on the young John Birks, since Norman Powe confirmed to the author that the boys did not have access to a phonograph and that nowhere in their rural backwater would it have been possible to buy records.
In Cheraw, before they arrived at Laurinburg, there was also limited access to broadcasts. "We didn't have a radio set," recalled Gillespie, "in fact some of the time we didn't even have electricity because we were cut off. But once we had a penny for the meter we could get the lights on again ... but our neighbors [the Harringtons] had a huge radio set, and we used to go and listen at their house."
Bands that visited Cheraw and Laurinburg included various touring groups playing jazz. Most were relatively local, but a small number were national figures, including the band led by Louis Armstrong's own mentor, King Oliver.
Despite Gillespie's protestations to the contrary, it seems unlikely that the presence of such a major figure in a Carolina backwater would not have made some impact on an aspiring young musician, even though by the early 1930s this New Orleans veteran was in decline, his heyday of the late 1920s long past. Oliver apparently invited the teenage John Birks and his cousin Norman Powe to join him before his band set off again on its weary way through the small towns and villages of the South. John Birks did not accept, but dearly remembered the great trumpeter and his oddly protruding eye. This is not least because Powe did take up the veteran trumpeter's offerhis two or three months of itinerant employment at the age of seventeen constituted his first "professional" job, although, as he told the author, Oliver was no longer much of a professional: the band was seldom on time in its dilapidated bus, and the pay was meagerjust a couple of dollars a night if they were lucky. Their agent, O. R. Wall, never seemed able to get them any decently paying jobs.
Powe left Laurinburg some months before Dizzy, so this event either took place around July 5, 1934, when eight of Oliver's sidemen quit at once after reaching Charlotte during a poorly paid tour of the Carolinas, or in the band's subsequent visits to the region in October 1934 or May 1935. Judging by the reports from Oliver's other musicians, it had not been a rewarding business touring the South in the depths of the Depression for some months before Powe joined them. However, Oliver's presence in the area gives us a clue as to some possible direct influences on John Birks. Oliver's own playing was past its prime, and, although he could still play well on a good day, Powe remembers him taking few solos and having endless trouble with his teeth. Consequently, on the band's 1934 visits, the main solos were taken by two other trumpeters, Deek Phillips and "Red" Elkins. Elkins is remembered by his colleagues for mastering Henry "Red" Allen's style, and Allen's influence on Gillespie is discussed in Chapter 4. Phillips, by contrast, modeled his playing on Armstrong's, even adopting a shallow mouthpiece to try and emulate Louis's range. Because he was with the Oliver band on most of its visits to the Carolinas during John Birks's formative years, he would certainly have conveyed something of the Armstrong style. For the 1935 tour, Phillips's place had been taken by Hosea Sapp, a player whose main recorded work dates from his 1940s rhythm and blues sessions, but solos on pieces like Roy Milton's "Milton's Boogie" Suggest a strong Armstrong influence in his phrasing and high notes, while his muted work on "R.M. Blues" from the same period shows a strong hint of Oliver's own playing.
Most of the other groups to pass through Cheraw and Laurinburg were "territory" bands. Generally this term is applied to groups based in the South, Southwest, or Midwest who spent much of their time on the road. Only a small number of these ventured as far as the Carolinas, on long straggling itineraries from Kansas City or Texas, but most of the bands that came to Cheraw or Laurinburg were East Coast groups. The Carolinas had a handful of local bands who mainly worked in the Southeast, although the history of music in the area is still so underresearched that it is hard to be sure about how any of theselike Doc Pettiford's, Billy Stewart's, Kelly's Jazz Hounds (all from Fayetteville), and the Capitol City Aces (from Raleigh)might have sounded. Gillespie claims to have sat in with the orchestra led in Charlotte by pianist Bill Davis, but unfortunately Davis's career is undocumented, so it is not possible to conjecture about his trumpeters.
The other principal band in the region that Gillespie recalled hearing has at least something of its sound preserved on disc. Also based in Charlotte, about ninety miles from Laurinburg, it was initially led by violinist Dave Taylor and then by pianist Jimmie Gunn. Norman Powe joined Gunn in 1937 and remembered that the band never strayed far from Charlotte and the surrounding area "because Jimmie was a schoolteacher. He always had to get home after the job so he could be at school the next morning. He was very popular in the area, and he had a very good band. We only traveled any distance during the summer vacation when he didn't have to be back for school. The band mainly worked in the Athaneum Ballroom in Charlotte, in a few clubs in the city and in the surrounding area. Some of the guys had extra jobs, like Jimmie himself, but we worked enough that you could make a good living just from music."
The trumpeter who solos on the band's first two records, cut in 1931 as Taylor's Dixie Orchestra, is generally accepted to be Joe Jordan. His colleague in the trumpet section was Lester Mitchell, who, like many members of the band, was attending the Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, the city where Victor's engineers recorded them. The tunes are standards"Everybody Loves My Baby" and "Wabash Blues"but despite a slightly ragged feel, there is a genuine jazz sense present, and alto soloist Skeets Tolbert (who later made a name for himself in New York) is outstanding. Overall, despite players hailing from a wide variey of regional backgrounds who had come together in and around Smith University, this band captures something of the style of the St. Louis territory bands, most notably the Missourians. Jordan's trumpet is closest to the King Oliver-derived on-the-beat phrasing and tight, slightly clichéd syncopations of trumpeters Lammar Wright and R. Q. Dickerson, who led that band. Even more notably, the Missourians' flamboyant tuba player, Jimmy Smith, was ably echoed in Taylor's North Carolina band by Harry Prather, whose agile playing anchors the rhythm section and produces a lively and melodic solo, based on the tune, in "Wabash Blues."
One of the band's saxophonists, Leslie Johnakins, remembered: "We broadcast regularly over the CBS Dixie Network Program, which originated in Charlotte, for about three or four years and this gave the band a good following." He dates this from September 1930, so it is probable that John Birks heard this band frequently, both in person and on the air. During the years 1931 to 1936, when what had become Jimmie Gunn's Orchestra was again recorded by Victor for the Bluebird label, the band expanded and its personnel changed. By 1936, the trumpets were Dave Pugh, Herman Franklin, and Charles Daniels, although it is known that another player called Billy Douglas was also briefly in the section.
Daniels was the band's main arranger and later taught the basis of arranging to Norman Powe when the two roomed together in the late 1930s. Pugh had been a pupil at Laurinburg, where his mother still taught when John Birks and Norman Powe were students there, and he was a well-known and influential player in the region. Even in the late 1930s, when Norman Powe himself was in Gunn's band, they continued to broadcast. "There was a lot of prejudice going on in the South at that time, so it was a big deal for a black band like ours to broadcast, but we were well known as one of the first black bands to play over the local radio networks, even though when I played with Gunn our broadcasts were down to one or two a year."
In his recorded vocals, Dave Pugh is immediately redolent of Armstrong, his gravelly voice accurately emulating Armstrong's tenor range from the period on "To My Levee Home" and "Star Dust." During the five years since the band's earlier recordings, Prather had moved to double bass, and Alton (or "Guy") Harrington had swapped his banjo for a guitar. Jimmie Gunn himself, though an accomplished pianist, had decided to front the band and hired a fluent, capable player called William Shavers to take his place. Even in North Carolina, the changes in fashion that had gone on in New York had permeated the local jazz scene, and the arrangements and rhythm section sound offer a good approximation of Armstrong's current backing band, the Luis Russell Orchestra.
The surprise is how little Armstrong influence is actually present in the playing rather than the vocals. Several of the tracks have a muted trumpet that plays melodic introductions in the style of Doc Cheatham's work with McKinney's Cotton Pickers or Cab Calloway's band. Only "I've Found a New Baby" shows a genuine Armstrong influence in the phrasing of the trumpet solo and the timing of the final high notes that stand out against the rest of the band. For the most part, whichever of Gunn's trumpeters was the key soloist, the inspiration is earlier territory band styles, rather than overwhelmingly Armstrong. Perhaps this is the kind of playing Gillespie meant when he described his playing shortly after leaving Laurinburg with the phrase, "I was still playing Southern." After all, during the years leading up to their 1936 record date, these were the local trumpeters a would-be player like John Birks would have heard most often, and their swing-inspired playing in a large band context may explain Gillespie's lifelong affinity for big band jazz. Curiously, one of Gunn's recordings, "The Operator Special," has another quite distinct characteristic. Its unison ensemble introduction has a strong Caribbean flavor in both the melody and the subtle underlying lilt in the rhythm. Maybe this suggests a starting point for Gillespie's lifelong interest in unusual rhythms and in particular what came to be known as Afro-Cuban jazz.
We do know for certain that, before leaving the Carolinas, John Birks heard one other large ensemble that played a ragged and exciting brand of jazz: the Jenkins Orphanage Band from Charleston, South Carolina. Known initially as a "picaninny band," this group of young musicians toured all over the United States and in Europe, raising money to keep the black orphanage in Charleston in funds. Numerous reviews talk of this band's exciting, highly rhythmic style, including Melody Maker, describing a contingent from Jenkins who appeared in London in 1929: "The trumpet and trombone were shooting off some hot stuff, which, though crude, had a positively irresistible rhythm." Duke Ellington's future trumpeter Cat Anderson toured the Carolinas with this band in the early 1930s (usually playing trombone) and then revisited the area again in a territory band known as the Carolina Cotton Pickers. He is just one of the many distinguished Jenkins musicians that John Birks is likely to have heard during his formative years as a trumpeter.
At Laurinburg, in addition to trying to make sure they caught up with touring jazz groups, Norman Powe recalled that much of his and John Birks's study was of classical music but they also listened to broadcasts by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway on the radio. "These were the two events we did not miss, when Cab's band or the Ellington band were on the air, they broadcast from the Cotton Club something like twice a week, and we would always hear them." The main soloists in Cab's band during the Laurinburg years were Edwin Swayze and Lammar Wright, both of them playing in the style favored by Jimmie Gunn's band. Ellington's main soloist was Cootie Williams.
The other main legacy of Laurinburg on John Birks was its brand of moral and ethical education. There is evidence (including his own account) that he was no less hot-tempered at Laurinburg than he had been during his tearaway phase in Cheraw immediately following his father's death. On one occasion he pulled a knife on another pupil in rehearsal, but managed to talk his way out of trouble. He also tells of accepting punishment when necessary from Principal McDuffy, and seems to demonstrate that the McDuffy ideals had rubbed off on him: "With all the deprivation and as hard as we had it down South, he managed to uplift us and instill in us a sense of dignity."
For some years to come, John Birks would still be a wild character, prone to draw his knife in the heat of anger, but Laurinburg had implanted some measure of pride in him, and some measure of his own worth. "I got so tired of the little G'lespie boy," recalled Mrs. McDuffy, when she was interviewed alongside Gillespie, "but I had patience with you, or you wouldn't be where you are today!" Even if, as later chapters show, he was not as defiant of the U.S. draft as he suggested in his autobiography, by the end of the 1930s he held one clearly established view as a consequence of his upbringing in the South: "The enemy, by that period, was not the Germans, it was above all the white Americans who kicked us in the butt every day, physically and morally."
By the start of 1935, the time drew closer when John Birks would have to leave the South. Early that year, to try and escape the economic burdens of surviving in Cheraw, his mother packed up and moved to Philadelphia. "They wanted me to stay down there and finish," recalled Gillespie, but his work went to pieces. Before the school year was out, he had flunked physics, which meant he could not obtain his high school diploma without staying another year. He was unprepared to do this and he eventually dropped out of school, the aim of joining his family up North.
Much later, as the leader of his own big band, he interrupted a tour of the South to collect his diploma from the Laurinburg Institute. By then he was a famous son of the community and nobody was going to worry about grades in physics. "I was on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, and we stopped in Laurinburg. We played a free concert in the daytime, with Ella, and in the middle of the concert Mr. McDuffy walked out on stage and said, 'Here's something you left!'
"It was my high school diploma dated 1934 and my football letter. So I'm not a high school dropout any more."