February 2, 2021

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Bebop 1945-1950: Dizzy Meets Bird

February 2, 2021- Today's Bebop Era Topic: Dizzy Meets Bird

During the swing era several artists emerged who expanded the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic approaches to improvisation as soloists.  This included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Blanton, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge and Art Tatum.  Their collective innovations had a major impact on the next generation of jazz musicians.

Three of these young players absorbed those innovations and created an entirely new style of jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Parker.

John Birks Gillespie, was born in South Carolina in 1917 and took up music at an early age.  By four he was playing the piano and eventually added the trombone and trumpet.  Hearing Roy Eldridge on the radio in 1930 convinced him to pursue a career in music.  In 1935 the family re-located to Philadelphia where he began working professionally with Frankie Fairfax.  In 1937 he  moved to New York and played with the band of Teddy Hill and a short stint with Edgar Hayes.  He returned to the Teddy Hill band and began working closely with the band’s drummer Kenny Clarke.

Both Gillespie and Clarke began experimenting with new ideas.  Dizzy was extremely interested in harmony and spent many hours working on the keyboard discovering different ways to voice chords.  He began applying those experiments to the trumpet much to the dismay of Teddy Hill. 

Dizzy played with a different rhythmic feel which Kenny Clarke picked up on and adapted to his own playing.  This led to his groundbreaking drum style which deviated greatly from his swing era forebears.  Teddy Hill and the other musicians didn’t like it accusing them of “breaking up the time”.   Dizzy was eventually fired and ended up joining Cab Calloway in 1939.

Dizzy wasn’t deterred and knew there was a different way to approach improvisation and he was determined to figure it out.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City the young alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was searching for a new approach as well.  They didn’t cross paths at that time but were working towards the same thing simultaneously. 

Charlie Parker was a product of the Kansas City nightlife scene where he grew up.  He was born in 1920 and was already trying to sit in on major jam sessions while still just learning to play.  His idol at the time was Lester Young who was playing with Count Basie at the Reno Club.   Lester’s unique time and phrasing, as well as his melodic approach was a major influence on the young Charlie Parker.  At one of the jam sessions, where he was in way over his head, he was laughed off the stage and humiliated.  He vowed to do whatever it took to come back and redeem himself.

During a summer job in the Missouri Ozarks he practiced endlessly and mastered the alto saxophone.  When he returned to Kansas City after that summer he was a completely different musician.  The things he had in his head that he couldn’t execute before were now executed with ease.  All of the local musicians were mystified as to how he could master things so quickly.
Now that the physical limitations of the horn were lifted the only thing left was to figure out the different harmonic ideas he could hear in his head.

At that point Buster Smith became his primary musical mentor.  Smith was a forward looking alto player and Charlie Parker followed him everywhere.  In 1938 Buster moved to New York and Parker followed.  During that period in New York he heard Art Tatum frequently.  Tatum’s virtuosity at the piano was another major influence to Parker’s developing sound and style.  In 1939 at a late night jam session it all came together for him.   He had the revelation of how to extend the harmony which was the final piece of the puzzle.  

In 1940, the Calloway band was playing a job in Kansas City.  Buddy Anderson, a forward looking trumpet player himself and a member of the Jay McShann Band heard what Dizzy was trying to do and suggested he should meet local alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.   Buddy brought the two together at the Musician’ Union building where Dizzy played piano while Parker played alto.

Dizzy realized that everything he had been searching for, Charlie Parker had already figured it out.    It was a monumental meeting of genius minds that would eventually change jazz forever.