Nineteen ninety-three saw the passing of some giants in jazz. They were not only legends, but pioneers. Dizzy Gillespie was one of the founding fathers of modern jazz. Sun Ra was playing his style of avant garde jazz way before it was cool to be avant garde, and composer Frank Zappa was experimenting with jazz/rock/classical hybrids years before anyone had heard of fusion. (Okay, calling Zappa jazz is kind of a stretch. Sue me.)
Dizzy Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, 1993. With Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk (who's the loneliest monk?), Dizzy founded the movement in jazz known as bebop. He also, unlike some of his contemporaries, was able to endear himself to mainstream audiences with his trademark ballooning cheeks, his incessant on- and off-stage clowning, and a trumpet that shot up in the air rather than straight ahead. Off stage, he was known as a kind and gentle soul. His knack for showmanship often belied his deep and sensitive artistry.
When someone like Sun Ra gets his picture in Life magazine, you can pretty much bet it's because he died. Sun Ra was so far from the jazz mainstream that people still don't know what to think of him. One thing is for sure: He was always ahead of his time. He was playing synths long before the rock guys were. His concerts (more like avant garde jazz circuses) featured large entourages of musicians, dancers, elaborate costumes and light shows (way before the rock guys began using them). Take music that far out, shows that fantastic, and add to that the fact that he believed himself to have come from the plant Saturn, and you've got the greatest enigma in jazz. Sun Ra died on May 30, 1993.
The music of Frank Zappa fits in no one category completely, but can partially fit in almost any category, except "normal." Nothing Zappa has written can be described as mainstream jazz, but he was, willingly or unwillingly, involved in the first efforts to combine rock and jazz. He frequently collaborated with jazz musicians like George Duke and Jean Luc-Ponty. What Zappa has done best, though, is forge a music so unique and wonderfully strange that he created his own genre. Zappa, like Sun Ra, played his music his way, without an ounce of compromise. That's no mean feat.
As I was completing this column I heard the news of the passing of a good friend and wonderful musician. Bassist Neal Burris died on Monday, January 17, at age 64. Neal was truly a beautiful person with a great love for jazz and for his fellow musicians. You will be greatly missed, Neal.
See you next time.