Jazz week: trumpet. Day 3, Dizzy Gillespie

January 12, 2011 • 6:45 am

Oh, dear, I just dropped my favorite coffee cup, breaking it and spilling latte everywhere.  Due to the exigencies of cleanup, and the frustration of losing my favorite latte mug, today’s version of Trumpet Wizards will be brief.

Up this morning is the great Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), pathbreaking bebopper, patron saint and mentor of many modern jazzmen, owner of the famous “angled trumpet,” and, of course, of those hugely distended cheeks.

Along with his early partner, Charlier Parker, Gillespie inaugurated a new era of jazz: bebop.  And we can pinpoint precisely when it happened: with the release of this record, “Ko-Ko,” which was recorded on November 26, 1945.  Nobody had heard anything like this before: neither the style of playing, which was very fast (I’m told Ko-Ko has 300 beats per minute) and dependent on tremendous virtuosity on the instrument as well as pervasive improvisation.

Ko-Ko is a riff on an older song, “Cherokee,” which was a popular jazz standard.  It was Parker who revised it into what you’re about to hear.  His playing dominates the song, but Dizzy keeps up.  It’s impossible to underestimate how important this song was in the history of jazz.   I have to admit that it’s not “beautiful” in the conventional sense, and not a song I’d listen to twice in a row, but it’s astounding and rewarding nonetheless.

While Diz plays second fiddle here, I did want to put this up since “saxophone week” will be a while coming; and other YouTube clips demonstrating Dizzy’s contribution to early bebop are few.  (For a decent one, see the YouTube clip in which Gillespie plays Salt Peanuts, his solo begins at 1:45 there).

Ko-Ko (click on line that says ” watch on YouTube”):

Here’s Parker playing the song, Cherokee, from which Ko-Ko was derived.  See if you can see the resemblance between this recording (1943) and Ko-Ko, recorded two years later.  And note the difference, which is the difference between late swing and bebop.

Back to Diz.  It’s hard to choose another song to show Gillespie’s versatility since YouTube videos are thin on the ground.  One of my favorites is this one, Night in Tunisia, written by Gillespie in 1942.  It’s been played by many, many jazzmen (my favorite version is Bud Powell’s piano piece from 1951; by all means get it if you can). Here’s Gillespie, older now, playing it:

And oh, about those cheeks.  Everyone was astonished at how Dizzy’s cheeks stretched when he played.  He looked like a chipmunk whose pouches are full of seeds, or a calling chorus frog:

What’s going on here?  Combing the medical literature to explain this anomaly (the things I do for my readers!), I finally found this note, a discussion of a different paper on Satchmo’s Syndrome (“Satchmo” was another nickname for Louis Armstrong, supposedly a shortening of “Satchel Mouth”):

(Kaye, Bernard I. [1982]  Discussion of Rupture of the Orbicularis Oris in Trumpet Players (Satchmo’s Syndrome). Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 69: 692-693.)

Satchmo’s syndrome involves a rupture of the orbicularis orbis, the sphincter muscle around the mouth.  This rupture happens in some trumpet players, damaging their embouchure and the ability to blow high notes. Here’s the muscle:

Dizzy did not have this.  In a discussion of Planas’s paper, Kaye surmises that Gillespie Cheeks (note: this is not “Gillespie’s Syndrome”, as some people call it on the internet: that’s a different and more serious disease) is caused by a weakening of the buccinator muscles in the cheeks (note the playful writing, rare in medical literature):

Finally, the condition described in this paper is to be differentiated from weakness of buccinators shown by certain trumpet players, particularly Dizzie Gillespie. When the Diz blows, his cheeks puff out like a blowfish. One can justifiably postulate attenuation and stretching of the buccinator fibers so severe that only the physical tensile strength of his cheek contains the pressure he needs to vibrate his lips.  In his case it is obvious that his rather odd blowing technique is more than adequate to produce his delightful music.

Here’s that muscle, in red:

I guess that wasn’t so brief . . .

36 thoughts on “Jazz week: trumpet. Day 3, Dizzy Gillespie

  1. The things you do for us, indeed :-))
    I’ve wondered about Dizzy’s cheeks forever–and here’s a paper explaining it that you’ve dug up for us, in spite of breaking your best mug and all sorts of to-doing.

    Thanks for the classic Diz! I’ve always liked that version of Sunny Side of the Street, the one where he just grabbed the mike and started singing…

  2. I’ll be interested to read what Ben Goren has to say about those cheeks. AFAIK, allowing the cheeks to do that is poor technique. Technique is important as (written as a keyboardist) efficient movement and deliberate control lead to not only a more beautiful tone, but fewer physical ailments down the line (carpal tunnel syndrome would be what I’m trying to avoid).

    Of course, a “beautiful” tone is not the point in this music. The music is the point in this music. As I suppose it is in all music (but folks get caught up in all sorts of superficialities and gimmicks, often ignoring the actual pitch/rhythmic content. But that’s getting off topic…)

  3. According to the OED online,
    the earliest use of the term buccinator in English is 1657 – N. Culpeper & W. Rand tr. J. Riolan Sure Guide v.. xiii. 220 “Vulgarly termed Buccinator or the Trumpeter, it were more rightly called Bucco the Cheek driver.”

  4. I know Diz did not have a rupture, as he could still hit that high C when I saw him in the 70s. I highly recommend Dizzy in South America for a good start on his compositions and his playing.

    I heard the killer Clifford Brown version of Night in Tunisia on my way to work this morning. Thanks WNUR.

  5. First, musically, Diz was a genius. I can’t sing his praises high enough so I won’t try to.

    On the matter of his cheeks…well, physiologically, Diz was a freak. Obviously, his technique was amazing and so it worked for him. Everybody else who’s tried it has managed to screw themselves up royally.

    Next, rupture of the orbicularis oris is often a career-ending injury. It results from overexertion. Trumpeters tend to have big egos. Playing too loud and / or too high for too long can rupture the muscle…and too many young trumpeters spend too much time in the practice room proving how manly they are…and, well, you can figure out the result.

    Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often.

    Lastly, I’ll point out that the thing all the trumpeters so far this week have in common that sets them apart from the rest is their phrasing. Listen to how they get louder and softer, both in the context of a musical phrase and on individual notes. Listen to the percussiveness (or lack thereof) of the starts of the notes, and how the individual notes taper off like a bell or are cut short, or some combination of the two.

    Explaining what goes into phrasing would take a dissertation, so I again won’t try…but have a friend read out loud some lines from Hamlet and compare what you might hear from Richard Burton reading those same lines and you’ll have an idea.



    1. Ben is right, of course. Above a certain level, all musicians, no matter what their instrument, have technical competence, if not downright awesome chops. What separates them from each other is phrasing, aka style. There’s so much that goes into that alone, most musicians are still working on it until the day they die.

      1. And you don’t necessarily need as much technical competence as you might at first suspect.

        I don’t think anybody ever accused Miles of having awesome chops. But he was one of the most brilliant musicians who ever lived.

        There’re lots of musicians with awesome chops whom you’ve never heard of because they have nothing to say. Indeed, many kids today arrive at college with more technique than most professional musicians had at the end of their careers a half a century ago. And a lot of the kids go absolutely nowhere.

        You need enough technique to be able to make the instrument do what you want it to do, plus a safety margin to compensate for what adrenaline always does in performance. If you don’t have that much technique, you’ve got problems.

        But, once you do have that much technique, the question becomes whether or not you put it to good use.

        Of course, the more critically you analyze your own playing, the more you discover subtle deficiencies in your technique that hinder your ability to express yourself and thus need correcting, and thus practice…and, once you’ve mastered (or, at least, tamed) those problems, you then become aware of other faults needing to be mended….



        1. Speaking personally, I no longer have the technique and the raw speed I had 25 years ago when I was semi-pro, but I attempt to compensate with phrasing, timbre and taste, and that’s what I work on. I could practice more, but I think overall I’m a much better musician now. Of course that could just be the confirmation bias talking.

        2. I wonder if we might distinguish between ‘technique’ and ‘chops’.

          I’ve always thought of ‘chops’ as a performer’s ability to play what’s on the page accurately and at the proper tempo. And to do this with comparatively little practice. Some folks have an easier time channeling the the visual representation of the music through their brain and into their physical performing apparatus.

          ‘Technique’ has more to do with musicality – like the knowledge you mention of how to phrase something elegantly, or abbrasively, or in whatever manner is called for by the affekt of the piece. It has to do with how to manipulate your instrument so as to get the best and most appropriate sound out of it.

          The best performers, it seems to me, will combine virtuosic chops with consummate technique – like Alfred Brendel.

          I don’t mean to be derogatory in the least, but most jazz performers lack in either chops or technique – as you also mention. BUT, these musicians’ talents and reputations were in the creation of music (as opposed to re-creation = performance). Which I think of as higher than performance by itself anyway.

          1. The term, “chops,” has different meanings from instrument to instrument, and even genre to genre.

            With classical trumpeters, it generally refers to physical strength and endurance. Can you play an entire concert with a Mahler symphony, a Stravinsky ballet, and a Strauss tone poem on it and still sound as solid at the end of the evening as you did at the start? Can you do that for the morning recording session, the afternoon matinee, and the evening concert? And do it again a few times that week? You’ve got chops.

            With pianists who specialize in accompanying, it seems to refer as much to sightreading ability as anything else.

            It can also be modified. If you’ve got great transposition chops, you can play anything in any key.

            It’s one of those super-slippery terms that only really makes sense in context.

            Considering that the first dictionary definition of “chops” is as a synonym for “mouth,” I suspect the first definition I gave above is probably also the original. As trumpeters, when our faces get tired, we refer to our chops getting tired. A physically-demanding piece that leaves you tired is a chopbuster, and so on.



            1. Yes, ‘chops’ is one of those multivalent kinds of terms. My definition was certainly given from a keyboardist’s perspective.

              In the examples you gave, it’s still something distinct from technique.

              I suppose my intent above was to head off any commentary that might include the trope that ‘technique’ represents the cold, clinical, ‘unmusical’ side of music; that technique is what run-of-the-mill students locked away in stuffy practice rooms waste their time worrying about. Scales and crap.

              Technique is important. As far as performance is concerned, technique is rightly the locus (or at least one of the loci) of real musicianship.

              1. Technique is not cold, per se, but not sufficient by itself for musical expression. My use of the word chops came from a jazz guitar pov.

  6. Thanks Jerry for this series of jazzmen, it’s great to see that these great musicians are still appreciated. Was wondering if you saw Ken Burn’s documentary on jazz and if so what you thought of it?

    Also, have you seen the book by Robert Crumb in which he did portraits of all these old jazz players? (He also did country and blues musicians.) It is excellent.

    1. Be aware there is controversy over the Ken Burns film. He uses Wynton Marsalis as too much of an authority on everything (and honestly, I don’t think he is that good. Great player, but NOT an innovator, he just rehashes old styles…) and they totally gloss over the 70’s. Jazz fusion, ECM,avant gard, etc are not even discussed as if they don’t even qualify as jazz.

      Personally I think Wynton is an overrated windbag.

  7. btw, the reason Diz doesn’t solo on Ko-Ko is because he was playing the piano. Bud Powell didn’t show up for the session.

  8. Also, perhaps Diz plays 300 notes per minute, but the bpm sound to me like it’s pretty close to good old 60. If the beat is a quarter-note, Diz would be playing mostly 32nd-notes.

    1. In bebop, we define 1/4-notes in 4/4 time by listening for the drummer chipping the hi-hat with their left foot on beats 2 and 4, and the bass player walking on all four beats. To practice hearing this, we can simulate the hi-hat chips by setting a metronome to 144 or 152 beats per minute, and practice hearing those clicks as beats 2 and 4 of 4/4 time. Then we can hear what Jerry wrote above is correct — Ko-Ko’s tempo is 300 quarter note beats per minute in 4/4 time, and the solo runs are 8th-notes in that tempo (plus Parker’s bursts of 8th-note triplets).

      One difficulty (as if that wasn’t hard enough) is the mono recording doesn’t let us focus our attention spatially on the hi-hat, so the chips on 2 and 4 (on the drummer’s left) are drowned by the wash of the ride cymbal (on the drummer’s right). If we were onstage, standing closer to the drums, we could pick apart the sounds better.

      Also, the original melody of Cherokee is deceptively slow (mostly whole and half notes).

      A classically-trained musician might hear the hi-hat chips as 8th-note offbeats in 4/4 at 150 bpm, as if the chips were syncopation in a Sousa march, or a Broadway show’s vamp-until-ready. But that would be a misclassification by similarity of form (like grouping bats with birds). The chips evolved in a continuous lineage from the backbeat on 2 and 4.

      1. OK. I suppose you can define the beat as the smallest or second-smallest note value being used. My point was that doing so does not make the music being played any faster than a piece with a MM of 1/4 = 75, and predominantly populated by 32nd-notes, of which there are innumerable examples, in several genres.

        I still want to feel the beat as a larger unit. A beat should admit of strong physical sensation, no? I’d give up trying to tap my foot 300 times per minute pretty quickly.

        1. Now I see your first point — setting musical notation aside, the trumpet/sax unison works out to 10 notes per second, and the sax solo triplets 15 notes per second, and those speeds can be found in other genres. So I agree, those speeds are not impressive or revolutionary per se.

          Your second point (where I also agree, I can’t tap my foot at 300 bpm!) leads to the dimensions that were revolutionary about this music. Previously, jazz was for an audience to dance. Then musicians testing each other in after-hours jam sessions extrapolated the dance music into this new form of music (called “modern” by the practitioners and “bebop” by detractors at the time).

          Part of the revolution was social (breaking from an audience dancing), part was technical (more intricate chord progressions), and part of the revolution was the players kept it feeling like dance music, but extrapolated beyond dancing outwardly — you can only sit or stand still and feel like dancing internally at 300 bpm.

          To feel it as 300 bpm, it helps to experience this music in a small room, with the hi-hat on the drummer’s left in your field of view. It’s OK to simultaneously feel a slower time scale like 150 or 75 bpm, as long as the music includes the 300 bpm feel. Not everyone finds this pleasant — like lapsang souchong, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

          1. Not to keep this going indefinitely (this post is quickly fading into the hinterlands of WEIT, I know), but it occurs to me that this “potayto, potahto” thing might also have to do w the distinction between “beat” and “tactus”.

            A gigue in 6/8 ostensibly contains 6 beats per measure. 6 8th-notes. No musician or dancer will say that, though. You can think of the superficial “time-sig-says-so” beat as an 8th-note, but the Platonic (if you will) beat, the one you really feel – the tactus- is a dotted quarter. Hence, 6/8 is thought of as compound duple meter.

            BTW, jazz, rock and pop have no monopoly on the concept of backbeat. In classical parlance it’s called a weak beat.

  9. My fondest memories were seeing Cannonball Adderley & Dave Brubeck & sons in Anchorage AK, early 70s – Art Blakey in Telluride, late 80s, Wynton Marsalis in Boulder 1982 before he was a household word, Miles Davis in the 80s, and Diz right around 1990. Nothing compares.

    1. Legend has it that there was an accident that resulted in the bent bell. Diz decided he liked the result and had later instruments modified (or manufactured) that way.

      The trumpet is a very directional instrument, so his reasons were definitely acoustic. However, where to aim the bell is largely a matter of taste.

      In my opinion, except in tight quarters, it should be pointed at the audience, preferably towards the middle to the back of the hall. Pretty much every soloist you’ll ever see will do exactly that, as well as every big-name section player either in an orchestra or a big band.

      Many amateur trumpeters, for reasons I truly can’t fathom, point their bells right at the music stand. I’m not sure how they even manage to read the music with a hunk of brass between themselves and the paper, and what it does to the sound is criminal. Probably an even larger number of amateurs point the bell at the floor several feet away. Doing so screws up your posture and causes most of the tone production problems that immature players struggle with.

      I’m sure most of y’all are familiar with Wynton and the space-age trumpet he plays. It’s made by Dave Monette. They’re nice enough instruments, but they’re as different from trumpets as trumpets are from cornets and flugelhorns. They’re also horrendously overpriced.

      Monette is a consummate salesman. He has a special “treatment” he’ll give to a mouthpiece. You hand your mouthpiece to him, he walks away or to another room, he hands it back to you. He doesn’t (or, at least, didn’t) charge for the treatment if you’re getting a tour of the factory. If you don’t like what the treatment does, he’ll walk away, reverse the treatment, and give it back. He’ll only reveal the nature of the treatment if you give him $1,000,000.00. I’m sure Mr. Randi would love to present him with exactly that sum.

      The hook? He gives you a quick lesson before handing the mouthpiece back to you. He fixes posture, uses some standard imagery hints to improve airflow, that sort of thing.

      He then has you try some of his ridiculously-overpriced mouthpieces, and continues the lesson, this time adding in some “suggestions” of what to “expect.” This time, it’s in the name of having to alter your playing to fit the way the equipment works. In reality, the same advice applies to all instruments, not just the trumpet. The sales pitch / lesson continues as you move on to the trumpets themselves.

      Is it any surprise that so many players who visit his factory notice an instant improvement in their playing? They think they’re buying some ultimate gadget to improve their playing, whereas all they’ve really gotten is a simple lesson in posture and tone production.

      Anyway…I should stop ranting and get back to work.



    1. I’m pretty sure Diz used circular breathing, but you don’t need to puff out your cheeks to that extreme in order to do so.

      I can’t circular breathe — I’ve never had a need for it — but a fair number of trumpeters can. When they do, there’s only minimal cheek puffing.

      After all, it doesn’t take much; just enough to sneak a quick breath through your nose. If you need more, just do it more often.



  10. If there’s one song Dizzy Gillespie was born to cover, but to my knowledge never did, it’s “In Heaven.”

  11. I’m sorry to hear of your coffee mug’s passing, along with the latte it was holding at the time. Caffeine is ever so much more pleasant than adrenaline for an early morning pick-me-up!

    Twas a good and faithful servant, that mug, and I’m sure it shall be missed.

Leave a Reply