How close were Charlie Parker (Bird) and Dizzy Gillespie (Diz)? It’s worth noting the statement Bird (allegedly) made to Ahmed Basheer a few months before his death. He said, “Basheer, I don’t let anyone get close to me, even you.” When Basheer asked why, Bird said, “Once in Kansas City I had a friend who I liked very much, and a sorrowful thing happened. He died.”
Bird was referring to Robert Simpson, a trombonist six years Bird’s senior, who was an older-brother figure and constant companion. Bird was just getting started on saxophone, and was, by all accounts, terrible, but he and Simpson struck out together to seek their fortunes in the turbulent Kansas City jazz world. In 1935, after Bird had been fired from Oliver Todd’s band, Simpson rose from his sick bed and traveled by streetcar in dank weather to plead Bird’s case, or so the story goes. Shortly afterward, he died of pneumonia. Bird told multiple wives that he started using narcotics at age 15, so there may have been a connection to Simpson’s death. Bird also injured his spine in a serious car accident the following year and may have been prescribed morphine for chronic pain, thus contributing to his addiction. But that’s another story entirely.
There is no doubt that Bird and Diz were exceptionally close musically, beginning in 1942. They were partners in the Earl Hines Orchestra, then in the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, then on 52nd. Street, and then, most importantly, in the recording studio. Their musical association ended in December 1945, when Dizzy returned to New York from Los Angeles and Bird stayed behind. But the recordings they’d made in February and May of that year astonished the jazz world. Bird and Diz executed high-speed unison passages as though saxophone and trumpet were one instrument. Their radical rhythmic, melodic and harmonic advances introduced a new language that startled all those who heard it, whether they loved or hated it. The February 28th date produced Groovin’ High, All The Things You Are, and Dizzy Atmosphere. The May 11th date produced Shaw Nuff, Salt Peanuts, Lover Man, and Hot House. The impact these recordings had on the jazz world can’t be overstated.
As to their personal relationship, Dizzy was forthright and Bird was circumspect. To say that the two men were of different temperaments is a euphemism; they were complete opposites. Diz was organized, responsible, disciplined. Bird was unruly, unreliable, uncontrollable. Much has been made of their supposed rivalry, but there is no conclusive evidence. One thing is perfectly clear, though: Bird was determined to outplay Dizzy every chance he got. Without exception, live and studio recordings bear this out. It’s most apparent in their 1947 performance at Carnegie Hall, where Bird pours out an endless stream of brilliant ideas, flawlessly executed, with an aggressive edge that almost detracts from their beauty. This may have been a reaction to Dizzy’s image in the popular press as the “inventor of bebop”, but others say it was like this from the start. So was their relationship a rivalry, or simply a competition between two close friends?
In an interview shortly after Bird’s death, Dizzy said the following: “We were always friends. Sometimes I would beat his brains out in chess, but there was never really any real ill feeling between us. Whenever we met, we used to kiss on the mouth. People want to believe there was animosity. The press likes it; it makes good copy. They wanted to know why I left him in California. I didn’t. I gave him his fare and he spent it and stayed on. People would say to me, ‘Bird invented bebop’ and I would answer, ‘He did.’ Then they would say, ‘Where do you come in?’ Even my wife Lorraine always says, ‘Bird plays more coherently than you do’”.
In August, 1948, Bird took part in a Down Beat “blindfold test”, where jazz writer Leonard Feather played recordings for Bird’s appraisal, without giving him any information beforehand. About the setting up the interview, Feather said this: “It took six months of reminders and broken appointments to get Bird to take the test, which was finally conducted at this writer’s apartment at 1 AM, between sets at the Royal Roost.” Bird’s broad-minded reactions to the array of jazz recordings played prompted Feather to write, “Charlie sees music as a whole, instead of looking only along the particular channel through which he has found his personal outlet. Bird made it clear that his high ratings of the records played were in no way based on a desire to avoid offending anyone. They represent his honest opinion.” If anything definitive is known about Bird at all, it’s that he refused to categorize music, and was deeply moved by it in all its forms.
Near the end of the blindfold test (a tape of which recently came to light) Feather plays Bird a recording of Dizzy’s big band performing “Stay On It”, a Tadd Dameron arrangement. The moment the recording ends, Bird declares, “Dizzy Gillespie!” This is followed by a full ten seconds of silence. Bird finally adds, “The other half of my heartbeat.” This statement has been adopted as Bird’s final word on his relationship with Diz, but ten seconds is an eternity in the realm of internal thought. How many memories and emotions passed through Bird’s mind before he chose this response? We’ll never know.