Writings About Music

Dizzying Art

Dizzy Gillespie

My favorite jazz trumpeter is Dizzy Gillespie. One particular element of his style is the profoundly musical use of the trumpet’s extreme high register. Melodic and rhythmic invention happening in this dizzying atmosphere is akin to adding a third dimension to a previously two-dimensional work of art.

Driving north on Virgil Avenue on a sunny Monday round about noon, enjoying a panorama of the Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood Freeway's flowing fugue of motor cars while listening to Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, it struck me that Shaw’s innovative use of the clarinet’s upper register must have impressed Gillespie, helping to inspire him to develop similar registeral play for the trumpet. We do know for fact that Dizzy's close colleague, Charlie Parker, committed Artie Shaw solos to memory, so its very likely that Dizzy was close to Shaw's music as well, and I imagine both Bird and Dizzy were fluent with Benny Goodman solos, too.


Artie Shaw

Shaw’s high tones still astonish in their pristine clarity and fullness of tone, seemingly belying physics itself, as Dizzy was to do later. Most remarkable for both musicians is how they ventured into this rarified terrain with highly musical yields rather than pyrotechnical display alone, even if one may marvel at their sheer technical prowess.  Potent poetry prevailing at perilous peaks is one way to put it!

Benny Goodman made momentous use of the clarinet’s upper register too, but my sense, and I may be mistaken, is that he got that particular idea from Shaw, or perhaps it was a simultaneous occurence. Regardless, Goodman's ventures into this remote pitch realm were more of an exclamation point, rather than an extension of his primary musical discourse. In terms of expression, Goodman's feeling in the high registers is emphatically representative of Jewish music and culture, while Shaw's mood is more European classical. Cootie Williams and Roy Eldridge were two great trumpeters who made use of the instrument’s upper register prior to Gillespie, but I’ve heard that playing more in terms of an effect, and this is why I believe Artie Shaw was the primary influence on Dizzy Gillespie’s extension of the trumpet’s range in the service of musical language as opposed to effect alone.

There is a live blues recording - Cool Blues? - by Charlie Parker where he hits a high A in the altissimo register of the alto saxophone as clear as clear can be - a startling powerful musical moment. I once asked Lee Konitz if he was familiar with this recording and Lee recalled that memorable tone instantly with gusto. One benefit of the meruvina is how I may take acoustic instrument timbres both higher and lower than they've been used before if called for in the musical context.

Being a latecomer for appreciating the genius of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, my focus having been on Modern Jazz and what came after, what I found most surprising is how their fantastic commercial success was entirely deserved in terms of artistic substance. Most of what I read and heard about them was too focused on the adulation they received from the general public, ignoring their phenomenal musical merits, their incredible fame working to obscure an abundance of musical treasure.

- Michael Robinson, July 2017, Los Angeles


© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).