Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Man With A Horn

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  With his round face and deep soulful eyes, John Faddis bears a slight resemblance to Dizzy Gillespie, the late, great jazz trumpet player whose oeuvre and legacy are at the center of the Gillespie Alumni All-Star band he plays in. But for Faddis, who essentially plays the role of Gillespie in the group, the connection goes deeper than the skin. Since he was a young trumpet student in Oakland, California, Gillespie has been a big part of Faddis’ life.

“I first met Dizzy when I was 12, but I was too shy to say anything,” recalls the 45-year-old Faddis. “So I said, the next time I meet him, I’m going to say something. When I was 15 I met him again at the Monterey [California] Jazz Festival, and I had taken all my Dizzy Gillespie albums for him to autograph, and at that time there were about 50 of them. We sat down and talked, and he would say, ‘I don’t remember this record.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah,that’s the one where your solo goes …,’ and I’d start singing the solo to him.

“A couple of weeks later he let me sit in with his group in San Francisco. As the kids say today, it was awesome. It was a dream come true, and it was something that really inspired me to become a musician. I was so nervous the room spinned around. I still remember standing on stage, and I remember the room spinning while I was playing.”

For Faddis, however, his gig with the Gillespie Alumni All-Stars is more than an homage to a hero. It is a loving tribute to the man who took a young horn player under his wing and nurtured him like a parent.

After graduation from high school in 1971, young Faddis, a true trumpet prodigy, landed a gig with Lionel Hampton’s band. The same year he also made the move seemingly all serious young jazz players must make: He went to New York. There he again met Gillespie.

“I started to sit in with Dizzy whenever I could,” says Faddis. “He remembered me from San Francisco. And I sort of stood next to him and absorbed everything he was saying.”

The lessons Faddis learned from Gillespie covered more than music, the trumpet player recalls.

“How to express oneself,” Faddis says. “How to deal with people. How to become a mature adult. How to become a man. How to take care of business. There were a lot of things. Being on time for gigs. How to be a leader. I’d say Dizzy was very open and giving as far as anything he did with me.”

Apart from Gillespie, however, Faddis learned how to assert himself as a player. Unfairly pegged early in his career as a Gillespie clone, Faddis slowly learned to step out from beneath his mentor’s shadow and establish his own voice.

“When I was younger, every time somebody would mention John Faddis’ name, it would be ‘John Faddis, Dizzy Gillespie’s protege,’” he says. “But now I think I’ve developed my musicianship and my playing to a certain extent that people have been able to garner respect for John Faddis as an individual. … Dizzy was my hero, so it’s always been easy for me to play in that style, but now I play it in my own way.

“I do my own interpretation. Sometimes it’s funny – there were times when he would do jokes or he would sing certain things and I’ll do it the same way and give the band certain looks the same way and the band’ll just crack up.”

The Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, which also features the phenomenal drummer Ignacio Berroa and native Memphis-born Mulgrew Miller on piano, were formed by Gillespie’s bass player John Lee shortly after the band leader’s death in 1993. The group tours often, playing European and U.S. jazz festivals as well as special concerts, such as an upcoming gig with the Denver symphony and their performance this week in Memphis. Last year the band cut an eponymously titled album.

At each stop, however, the mission remains the same, as the group seeks to expose audiences to the varied legacy of Gillespie, dubbed the ambassador of jazz – a legacy that includes groundbreaking work in bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, and world jazz.

“Dizzy was someone who, for awhile, was underappreciated,” says Faddis. “He was always appreciated by musicians. But it wasn’t really until later that he really came into his own. He used to say, when he turned 65, he said, ‘Man, I can ride the subway for free now.’ When he got senior-citizen status, that was when people started to look at him differently, to look at his contributions differently. … But I don’t know if [giving Dizzy his due] really is the motivation for us. It’s really just us playing music we love.”

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