Happy Dizzy Day! October 21, 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of trumpet player/composer John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, pioneer of bebop jazz and a giant of American Music. I chose Dizzy’s centennial to debut my blog, “For A Song”. People sometimes ask for the stories behind my songs; here’s the one behind “My Dizzy Visions,” written on the train right after I began commuting from Connecticut to New York City.
DIZZY MEETS BLACK ELK
I was reading Dizzy’s autobiography, “To Be or Not to Bop” an oral history co-authored with Al Fraser, who interviews Dizzy, his friends, teachers, siblings and fellow musicians about a life that began in rural South Carolina and brought him to the pinnacle of the jazz world. There are great stories about how he pioneered the bebop style, brought Afro-Cuban beats to jazz, fought segregation and toured the world as an ambassador for American music. Around that same time I also read “Black Elk Speaks,” a spiritual epic by in which John Neihardt relates the story of Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux elder who speaks in a poetic, apocalyptic style similar to the Book of Revelations. I wanted to write a musical tribute to Dizzy with lyrics in the style of “Black Elk Speaks.”
On the train, I wrote pages of lyrics which I whittled down to two verses. At home, I grabbed my guitar and composed music as close to Dizzy’s style as I could get, including a four-bar riff to play between verses. It took me a month to learn to play the song smoothly. I recorded a simple acoustic version with guitar and vocal – no trumpet. Then I put it away.
About 20 years later, I brought the music to Greg Packham’s studio in Fairfield, CT, and he helped me get the version that became the title track of my first online album. I played guitar and sang; Greg came up with great drum, bass and percussion parts. Finally, Pete Roe of Fairfield played a stunning trumpet solo. Here is a video of the song, followed by a lyric sheet:
I’m going to play my Dizzy visions from sea to shining C up above high C. I’m going to say my Dizzy visions until the words sound just like sanctified poetry. I’m going to sing my Dizzy visions until the tune captivates and the beat syncopates your soul. I’m going to swing my Dizzy visions until the valley starts to rock and the thunder clouds roll. Jazz blew just like a cool breeze into the sweltering city night. Folks outside were be-bopping as the sun sank and the neon grew bright. Uptight executives yanked off their ties; gangsters all threw down their guns. Anger and hatred and fear disappeared; the city learned how to have fun. Music like magic changed the world before our very eyes. Strangers turned into sisters and brothers; we harmonized while the band improvised (play the riff).
I’m going to plant my Dizzy visions and nourish them ‘til the seeds sprout from the ground. I’m going to chant my Dizzy Visions until everyone can hear that Dizzy sound. I’m going to wear my Dizzy Visions so you can see there’s someone else as mixed up as you. Oh won’t you share your Dizzy visions so I can see the truth through a different point of view. A bird was chirping a sad, sweet song from his perch at the edge of a limb. A monk led my soul through the changes in time with a chorus of cool cherubim. Suddenly the spotlight shone like a star on a horn bent in half toward the sky. Like a god breathing fire into cold brass, puffy cheeks blew the chains off my heart; it could fly. Music like magic, changed the world before our very eyes. Strangers turned into sisters and brothers; we harmonized while the band improvised (play the riff and then trumpet solo).
If you want to learn more about Dizzy, I would recommend going online and checking out anything he recorded with Charlie Parker. Also his original compositions like “A Night In Tunisia”, “Manteca” or “Tin Tin Deo” and his seminal version of the standard “I Can’t Get Started.” I was lucky enough to see him play several times at venues ranging from the Newport Jazz Festival to small New York clubs. I even got to interview him once when I was a reporter at the Connecticut Post. If you read “To Be or Not to Bop” you will learn a lot about the history of jazz and also the struggles of African American jazz musicians during the time of segregation. Or you can find a good capsule biography here: https://www.dizzygillespie.com/biography/
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