Memories of Dizzy Gillespie

Volume 113, No. 9October, 2013

Jimmy Owens
Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) performing at a 1991 concert in France. Photo: Roland Godefroy

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) performing at a 1991 concert in France. Photo: Roland Godefroy

Each Oct. 21, we honor the memory of legendary trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie on his birthday. Below, jazz master Jimmy Owens gives us his reminiscences.

It was always a pleasure and a learning experience when I was around Dizzy. Slide Hampton first introduced me to him in 1963 while we were in Virginia Beach. Dizzy was performing a concert at the city’s convention center. In his group were all my friends: Kenny Barron, Chris White, Rudy Collins and James Moody. Slide’s band worked at a place called The Gaslight at night and integrated the beach during the daytime. On this meeting with Dizzy, I remember him putting something under my nose that made me a little high for a minute or so while we were shaking hands. He then gave me his telephone number and said I should call him when I got back to New York. I also remember him coming to a club in Paris (Le Dreher) where I was working. He wouldn’t play (as he didn’t have his horn), but he grabbed the microphone and sang some X-rated lyrics on a slow blues we were playing.

Dizzy was a natural-born teacher. He was also a wonderful composer, arranger, humanitarian, historian, comedian, and the world’s greatest trumpet player. He set the musical foundation that Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and many others had to master to become great trumpet players themselves.

In 1968, the arranger Gil Fuller asked me to put together a big band for Dizzy’s European tour. I assembled a 17-piece band that included Dizzy Reece, Victor Paz, James Moody, Sahib Shihab, Cecil Payne, Curtis Fuller and Tom McIntosh, along with Dizzy’s current rhythm section of Mike Longo, Paul West and Candy Finch. (They were all members of Local 802, and most of these jazz artists today have little or no pensions.)

The music was great, the tour was a hard three weeks of traveling, but being with these musicians was great fun. I recall a piece called “Things Are Here,” where I traded choruses with Dizzy. I was 25 and Dizzy was 51 and every night he showed me to continue to practice! I took the lesson to heart.

Dizzy celebrated his birthday during the tour, and the band played a surprise rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” as a first song of a set. He was so surprised and happy that he had tears in his eyes. That was one of my great memories of being with John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.

Jimmy Owens is a trumpeter, composer and educator. In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He has been a Local 802 member since 1959.