Google decided to be awesome today (and, well, always) and create an ode to jazz mastermind, bebop inventor, and founder of Afro-Cuban rhythm Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) on what would have been his 93rd birthday.
About 1 3/4 years ago, UMP brought back into print Gillespie’s towering 550-page memoir, To Be, or Not … to Bop, written with his longtime friend Al Fraser and intertwined with memories from those who knew him, including Miles Davis, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald. Here is an excerpt about Gillespie’s early days in Philadelphia from the chapter “Becoming Me …”:
Before I came to Philly, my family had been telling everybody what a good musician I was and asking people to look out for me when I came up from South Carolina. They didn’t realize how soon that would be, so Mama, Mattie, Genia, Wesley, his wife, and I were all living there in this one apartment. Three and a half rooms at 637 Pine Street. Bill, the barber, Mattie’s husband, lived with us too. Bill was a sport. He had a Cord automobile, gold teeth, and he owned the barbershop right down the street from us. He was a hustling cat and made late hours at night, but he was really nice to me. The first week after I arrived in Philly, Bill took me up to Harry’s Pawnshop and bought me one of those long trumpets. That was the first horn I ever owned. I think it was a Pan-American, and it cost him $13. He bought it on time for me, and I really appreciated that, but he didn’t buy me a case for the horn, so I started carrying it around in a paper bag. For about two or three weeks, I was carrying this horn around in a paper bag. All the other musicians thought that was real funny.
Within three days after I got to Philadelphia, Johnny, an alto player who lived down the street, found a job for me playing for $8.00 a week at the Green Gate Inn at Twelfth and Bainbridge in South Philadelphia. That place was rowdy. Later on, they named it Pearl Harbor. A blind guy owned the place then, and I was playing trumpet in a trio with Fat Boy, a drummer, and a piano player whose name I can’t remember. …
Another guy offered me a job at Twelfth and South for $12 a week, so I put in my notice at the Green Gate Inn and went out and joined the union. There was a colored union in Philadelphia at the time, and Frankie Fairfax was the secretary. I kept working at Twelfth and South for about five weeks, feeling good about making $12 a week. I used to give Mama some of that. My name started getting around, and Frankie Fairfax decided to give me a tryout for his band. Frankie Fairfax had a beautiful band then, one of the best in Philadelphia. Bill Doggett was his piano player, writer, and musical director. I was lucky to get a tryout with a big band like that so soon.
When the audition came, I didn’t even feel nervous. I was used to reading stock orchestrations and could read my ass off, but I had never read any music written in pencil and with such poor notation. In music, a perfect copyist is a very important man, but these cats would take a pencil, and boom-boom-boom, make a line across, a line down, another line across the note and call it an eighth note. And the way they made an eigth rest was–boom–just one line.
Guys had gotten used to reading this bad notation, and when I got up there and they put that music up before me, I started playing eighth rests for notes, sixteenth rests for notes—everything came out wrong. It ended up with them thinking that I couldn’t read music and they wouldn’t give me the job. Bill Doggett was the main cause of my not getting the job. “That little dizzy cat’s from down South,” he said, “carries his horn around in a paper bag. You know he can’t read.” I must have sounded so weird playing all those rests and everything that everybody else agreed. I told them I could read, but they wouldn’t believe me. The name didn’t stick, but it was the first time someone had called me “dizzy.”