ED GORDON, host:
In the world of jazz, Dizzy Gillespie is an icon. Beyond its borders, he's a legend. His journey through music led him to revolutionize jazz by infusing bebop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Donald Maggin is the author of a book titled "Dizzy: The Life and times of John Birks Gillespie," which takes us inside the jazz great's life. The author says Dizzy was an original.
Mr. DONALD MAGGIN (Author, "Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie"): He was the maker of two important revolutions in jazz. The first one was bebop and the second one was the Afro-Cuban revolution.
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GORDON: Ofttimes he was such a character, with the cheeks and the horn that was his trademark. I don't know if he often gets the due, as you suggest, in terms of how he revolutionized music.
Mr. MAGGIN: No, I think that's true. He could not curb his comedic bent. He just loved to have fun out there. When they were traveling in Europe with the big band in 1948, John Lewis, the pianist, who was a very scholarly sort of conservative guy--Dizzy would do crazy things like lean on the bass player's strings while he was doing a solo and stuff, and John Lewis said, `These are great spiritual moments for the audience. Why are you doing that, Dizzy? You shouldn't do that.' But Dizzy didn't listen to him at all.
And the cheeks are because he was totally self-taught, he didn't realize that this was a no-no, and by the time he got to be a mature musician, he was so used to that that he stayed with it. The tilted trumpet was part of his genius for PR, because he claimed it sounded better.
GORDON: I don't know if this is folklore or not; I read that someone sat on the trumpet initially and bent it. Is that correct?
Mr. MAGGIN: Yes. It was at a birthday party for Dizzy's wife, and these two friends of his were horsing around on the stage and one of them fell and landed on the trumpet and tilted it, and when Dizzy came back he was initially angry, but he didn't want to spoil his wife's birthday party, so he went along with it. And then he started playing it and he claimed that it sounded better. And then he had trumpets custom made with the 45-degree angle.
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GORDON: One of the things that I find also interesting about Dizzy Gillespie is the idea that he did marry so many cultures. His signature song, for instance, "Night in Tunisia," brings all of those elements together. What was it about this man that could do that kind of thing?
Mr. MAGGIN: He was fascinated by world rhythms, by the Afro-Cuban rhythms, by Indian tabla-playing rhythms, by African rhythms; like, he toured with Miriam Makeba. He told me that he first heard Afro-Cuban music when he got gigs with salsa bands in East Harlem when he was about 18 and he was starving. And he said in America the slave owners did not allow the black people to have drums because they were afraid they would foment a revolution by communicating with each other. But in Cuba and Brazil and places like that, they did have drums, and they kept the African drumming traditions alive.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, an El Dorado coming after me.
Chorus: (Singing) Coming for to carry me home.
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GORDON: Interesting, this man that we know as Dizzy was in the fore, if you will, of understanding celebrity.
Mr. MAGGIN: That was just a natural thing with him. I mean, he was on Johnny Carson all the time and his contemporaries, like Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker, they had none of that. So Dizzy became sort of the poster child of modern jazz because he had such an ebullient personality.
GORDON: Do you believe that that is, to a great degree, to the novice, why perhaps he is not taken as seriously as a Monk or a Davis?
Mr. MAGGIN: It did detract, the fact that he was a comedian as well as a great musician. But his contribution in these two revolutions is immense.
GORDON: When you think about Dizzy Gillespie, what's the one thing that you think people don't know about this man?
Mr. MAGGIN: He was a revolutionary, and that's partly because of his father. He said, `My father made me a rebel against everybody but him.' And that's the thing that got to me, that behind this facade of camaraderie and fun and comedy was a revolutionary, somebody who would not accept what he was given and had to change it.
GORDON: We should note that there is also an accompanying CD that comes along with the book, "Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie," "Dizzy." The Verve years, if you will...
Mr. MAGGIN: Yes.
GORDON: ...perhaps his most productive.
Mr. MAGGIN: And there's a terrific variety of stuff there. I mean, it's the only recording with him and Monk and Parker on the same CD. There's stuff with Sonny Rollins, stuff with Stan Getz.
GORDON: And what's remarkable about what you have here--there are some real standards. I mean, when you talk about "Caravan" and "I Remember Clifford" and "Round Midnight," these are songs that are so familiar to those who love jazz.
Mr. MAGGIN: They're part of the canon, really.
GORDON: Well, the book is called "The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie," "Dizzy," and we thank you so very much for spending time with us.
Mr. MAGGIN: My pleasure to be here.
GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.