Dizzy is dead. He blew notes around the melody. He blew notes around the world. He was blowing them almost up till his death by cancer in a New Jersey hospital last week. And when he died, the music he made with his trumpet was replaced by another sound: applause. First from his friends, then his co- workers, then his country, then the world. It would turn, quickly, into a standing ovation, headlines, TV news stories, old footage, verbal tributes. It was the loudest the world had ever cheered him.
All he had to do was die.
For jazz artists and other non-pop stars of culture, death seems to be the only time that recognition comes close to achievement. On the same day that Gillespie, 75, passed to the angels, a brooding, starkly handsome Russian-born dancer named Rudolph Nureyev was dying too, in a hospital bed in Paris. Most believe he was smitten by AIDS. He said good-bye at age 54. The applause began the moment death claimed him. Nureyev! Such brilliance! Such artistry! What a terrible loss, we all lamented. He was truly the best.
And yet the saddest part of both their passings is this: How many of us know anything by either of these two geniuses? Try this test: Hum three songs made famous by Dizzy Gillespie. Hum one.
Now mimic the most outstanding movements of Nureyev in any of his ballet performances. Can you? Even one? The greatest of his time? Even one? Gillespie’s influence felt
Now take a parallel test: Name one Madonna song. Name any of her god-awful movies. Name who she was married to. You can answer these, I’m betting.
Now mimic the “Moonwalk” dance by Michael Jackson. Or name two parts of his face he’s had altered by plastic surgery.
Don’t tell me. You scored 100, right?
These facts we know. They jump to mind. Our high-gloss, fast-food, chew-and-spit culture is what most of us think of when we think
“entertainment.” Especially our children. And that is the saddest part.
What they don’t know is that Quincy Jones, the man who produced Jackson’s
“Thriller” — the biggest-selling album of all time — was given one of his earliest breaks by, guess who? Dizzy Gillespie. What they don’t know is that Dizzy helped father a form of music so revolutionary that people in the ’40s screamed it had a bad influence on young people, the same tag rock ‘n’ roll suffered a decade later.
What they don’t know is that Gillespie made dozens of records, wrote movie scores, created songs over top of other songs. That his goatee, horned-rimmed glasses, bow tie and beret created a fashion fad of “hep” in the ’40s that people rushed to imitate, although he never made a penny from it. Or that his musical legacy, be-bop, is today what most non-music people think of when someone says “jazz.” I remember once Kirk Gibson, the baseball star, teasing a visitor about liking jazz music. He mimicked a trumpet sound and went
Gibson had no idea he was paying homage to Dizzy Gillespie.
He is not alone. Following in the footsteps
Dance, meanwhile, has become an essential part of pop music. Bobby Brown, Hammer, Michael Jackson, to name a few, are as celebrated for their moves as for their music. The fact that they are can, in no small way, be traced to Nureyev. Ever since 1961, when he leapt over an airport railing in Paris and into the custody of French police, leaving communist Russia behind, the western concept of male dance has been altered.
Nureyev was muscular, powerful, his leaps were athletic as well as artistic. So dramatic was his talent that he once received 89 curtain calls at a single performance. He revolutionized his art and gave a rock-star persona to a field that previously had been best known for graceful women.
But what do our children know of him? Did they ever see him dance? Would they recognize “Swan Lake” or “Giselle”?
Probably not, because ballet is considered “culture” — a word that excites people overseas and somehow frightens them here. Say it to kids, they pinch their faces. “Oh, no,” they groan, “we’re gonna watch PBS?” So addicted have we become to movie-star, MTV, newspaper-tabloid bombardment that we are like those rats in scientific experiments, racing to the sugar, over and over, even though, without nutrition, we die.
Culture — jazz, ballet, fine art — is nutrition. It means fields where excellence — not how much noise you make — determines stardom. It lasts. It is honest. The night after two artistic giants left this earth, Americans stood in line at midnight — not to buy their records or dance tapes but to buy a stamp that featured Elvis Presley’s face.
Gillespie and Nureyev deserved more. It’s nice that we applaud them in death; applauding them in life would have been better.