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Legacy: Dizzy Gillespie

The founder of bepop passes away at the age of 75

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Legacy: Dizzy Gillespie

You could blame Maynard G. Krebs, that kooky, goateed hipster in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis who used Dizzy Gillespie’s image as a caricature of bohemian jazzbo weirdness. Yet, from his black beret and big horn-rimmed glasses to his cockeyed trumpet and walrus cheeks, Gillespie not only asked to be seen as a ”character,” it was his marketing strategy. Just like Louis Armstrong in an earlier age of musical revolution, Gillespie — who died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6 at age 75 — used a funny face to disguise an artistic seriousness of vaguely threatening proportions.

Born John Birks Gillespie in rural Cheraw, S.C., ”Dizzy” earned his nickname as a giddily free-spirited trumpeter for Teddy Hill’s, Cab Calloway’s, and others’ swing bands in the ’30s. He was so mercurial, in fact, that during a squabble with Calloway, he pulled out a pocket knife and cut a sizable chunk out of the bandleader’s behind; he was fired in 1941.hen, however, Gillespie had already begun after-hours experiments in a new kind of improvisational music that would soon surpass big-band swing — at least in the minds of critics and scholars, if not in those of the record-buying public. Hand in hand with saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, drummer Max Roach, and others, Gillespie created bebop: a virtuosic, fiercely individualistic style of ensemble improvisation based on complex and often obtuse harmonic patterns and volatile rhythms. In short, it scared the hell out of most people and effectively transformed jazz into a music for trained ears instead of dancing bodies.

If there’s one bebop artist most of us will always recognize, it’s Gillespie — even if we can’t identify his gymnastic trumpet style or hum any of his compositions, such as ”Night in Tunisia” and ”Manteca,” the latter one of Gillespie’s early innovations in Afro-Cuban jazz. ”Dizzy was the catalyst,” says Roach, one of the few surviving pioneers of bebop. ”He was the one who inspired us all.” Here’s a sampler of the seminal recordings — straight A’s — chosen from Gillespie’s vast catalog:

*DIZZY’S DIAMONDS Thoughtfully compiled three-disc anthology, mostly from Gillespie’s commanding ’50s output, that was released in honor of his 75th birthday.

*BODY AND SOUL Orchestral bop from Gillespie’s own 1949 big band, featuring Sarah Vaughan.

*JAZZ AT MASSEY HALL Duly legendary performance of the ”dream band” of Gillespie, Parker, Powell, Roach, and Charles Mingus.

*GILLESPIANA Ambitious suite by Lalo Schifrin for Gillespie — and a rare successful union of classical music and bop. Out of print.

*AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ MOODS Enchanting exploration of Latin rhythms with Dizzy on both trumpet and percussion.