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“Dizzy Gillespie” by Tony Gentry Literature Analysis Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Apr 16th, 2020

The book Dizzy Gillespie tells the story of success of an African American jazz star of the 20th century, and is titled by his name. The author has chosen this subject because it tells about famous jazz, trumpet player and singer Dizzy Gillespie.

Stepping after the author page by page the reader can know not only the life of the American jazz player but to trace the roots of the modern jazz. Here it is important to note that the publisher is Black Americans of Achievement group – it is the group promoting writings of and about famous African Americans who made their contribution to the development of some field.

The fragments of glamorous life were given much evaluation in the work of Gentry; jazz was (and is still) seen as the club music, music for dancing and fun. However, for the players it is also the hard labor and constant pursuit of ideal.

This is where discrimination features are evident in the work: while playing, being popular and loved, musicians like Gillespie had to be relentless workers during their whole life. The book is divided into eight chapters, each under its own title. It also includes chronology of the events given in the book. However, it can be considered more thematically arranged because the work does not give much background information about Gillespie beyond music topics.

The central image of the work is the musician himself. It is clear that the author is fascinated with the image of Gillespie, and he characterizes him as a fun-making, extraordinary man but a passionate musician first of all:

“But this kid was full of surprises. Always joking, dancing, mugging at the girls, he never seemed to sit still. And when he was on the bandstand, he put all that useful energy into the music…He was like a baseball slugger swinging for the fences” (Gentry 9-10).

Gillespie is depicted by the author as not afraid of changes, accepting them with joy and fascination; the proof for this may be found in his way of moving to New York – kissing his mother, saying good-bye, and jumping into the first train (Gentry 13). The style of Gillespie was new, innovative and daring; so was the environment in which he had to exist to become able to realize himself. An illustrative example of what the environment for Gillespie was like can be found at the very beginning of the work:

“Any jazzman worth his salt had a nickname, and now he had one too…Swing was far and away the most popular style of music in America during the mid-1930s, and to play in a big band had become one of the most cherished dreams of young musicians across the country. He had fallen in love with the sharp clothes, racy slang and easy confidence of the band members” (Gentry 11-12).

The author takes a clear approach to the figure of Gillespie as a restless and creative musician whose man fear was to become trivial. Hence, he spent enormous amounts of time exploring new musical tunes, new combinations of sounds and instruments etc. to be original and interesting to the public, and to develop as a musician (Gentry 18). As well as originality and creativity, the non-acceptance of traditional canons of jazz became one of the central themes in the work.

The notion of tradition is clearly shown in the work by the rejection Gillespie faced in the Teddy Hill Orchestra because of his innovation. The tunes and usage of instruments he offered was not appealing to the band, and they were sure nobody would dance to such music.

They even posed an ultimatum to the bandleader about the cruise in which they had to participate, on absence of Gillespie in the team (Gentry 20). It is impossible to say that Gillespie did not observe the tradition; he obviously had several idols that influenced his career and inclinations in music:

“Musicians he had heard on the radio since he was a child crowded tiny bandstands in smoky rooms… Lester Young and Ben Webster on saxophone; Art Tatum burning up the keys on piano; Charlie Christian plucking quick, sweet notes on guitar. And at last, Gillespie’s true hero, trumpeter Roy Eldridge…” (Gentry 17).

There is not much social and cultural history in the work, but the amount available pertains mainly to Gillespie’s childhood. He is at first shown as a poor Black laborer of South Carolina who had to earn his living after his father’s death in his early childhood (Gentry 36). The way his mother worked, and the hardships Gillespie accounted when he had to work in the white-only surroundings were depicted in the work, showing how racial segregation affected the way people lived, earned and were perceived.

The choice of images in the work deserves separate attention; it is not occasional, as the author was trying to recreate the atmosphere and history of jazz, so he included such names as teddy Hill, Kenny Clarke etc. in the work to show the relationship of the main character with the monumental figures in jazz development (Gentry).

Interpretation of images corresponds to the intention of the author to show the glamorous world of jazz, creativity and success on the stage; the players are shown as skillful masters of their work, innovators are paid tribute for their contribution to jazz development etc.

There are several types of lexicon used in the book; the first is the professional slang of jazz players, including the names of instruments, songs, techniques of playing etc. Secondly, the street slang used by African Americans is also evident throughout the work since the majority of jazz musicians were Black. Thirdly, there are many fragments of sophisticated English to show the splendor of places in which Gillespie played, which he visited, or what he dreamt about (Gentry).

As for readership, there is no clear assumption about the reader and spectator intended for this book, since every person taking an active interest in jazz may find much valuable information in it. In addition, the US citizens who want to know more about the milestones of their musical history, African Americans feeling pride about their heroes, and all people enjoying biographical books written in a vivid and bright manner may become the potential readers.

16. It is hard to say whether the book serves the needs of the art market because it truly promotes jazz as a musical genre, and it draws certain parallels between the success of players and their hard work, their most famous works etc. Nonetheless, it is more a story of one man’s struggle for success, recognition and perfection in his field of work than an promotional tool for jazz.

There is little attention to the environment in which Gillespie lived and worked; only some reminders of white-only institutions and facilities he faced in his childhood, and later in his life. The author acts more as an evaluator of the socio-cultural context in which Gillespie had to fight for his success in music.

The book may be regarded as a purely musical account with less personal, class, gender or race context that would have surely enrich it, but would at the same time make it less concentrated on the main topic of music and jazz development.

The work is written in the 1990s, when the oppression of African Americans was officially ended; it is dedicated to one of the major trends in music of the 20th century, and it covers the success story of a great musician, recollecting the way to success, the secret of Gillespie’s success etc. It is typical for the end of the century since it helps to adopt an alternative viewpoint on the musical genre, show its value, and illustrate the roots and path of development it had.

Works Cited

Gentry, Tony. Dizzy Gillespie. Danbury, CT: Scholastic, Inc. Print.

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