Audio Stories

How Dizzy's Horn got bent

Dizzy: To Be or Not to Bop
Autobiography of Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser

Reprinted with permission by Al Fraser.
Copyright(c)1979. All rights reserved.

The truth is that the shape of my horn was an accident. I could pretend that I went into the basement and thought it up, but it wasn't that way. It was an accident. Actually, I left my horn on a trumpet stand and someone kicked it over, and instead of just falling, the horn bent. I was playing at Snookie's on Forty-fifth Street, on a Monday night, January 6, 1953. I had Monday nights off, but it was my wife's birthday so we had a party and invited all the guys--Illinois Jacquet, Sarah Vaughn, Stump 'n Stumpy, and several other artists, all the people who were in show business who knew Lorraine from dancing. They were down there having a good time and the whiskey was flowing. They had a cake and drinks and everything. This guy, Henry Morgan, who had his own show in New York, invited me to come on his show and be interviewed. This was really another put-on because he wasn't really interested in music. Anyway, I went out to be interviewed; he was doing the show from a hotel around the corner. My horn was still straight when I left it on one of those little trumpet stands that sticks straight up.

When I got back to the club after making this interview, Stump 'n Stumpy had been fooling around on the bandstand, and one had pushed the other, and he's fallen back onto my horn. Instead of the horn just falling, the bell bent. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand if someone fell on a horn, it would bend the valves or maybe hit and bend the valve case. The horn would be dented, and the valves would stick, but this horn bent. When I got back, the bell was sticking up in the air. Illinois Jacquet had left. He said, "I'm not going to be here when that man comes back and sees his horn sticking up at the angle. I ain't gonna be here when that crazy muthafucka gets back."

When I came back, it was my wife's birthday and I didn't wanna be a drag. I put the horn to my mouth and started playing it. Well, when the bell bent back, it made a smaller hole because of the dent. I couldn't get the right sound, but it was a strange sound that I got from that instrument that night. I played it, and I liked the sound. The sound had been changed and it could be played softly, very softly, not blarey. I played it like that the rest of the night, and the next day I had it straightened out again. Then I started thinking about it and said, "Wait a minute, man, that was something else." I remembered the way the sound had come from it, quicker to the ear--to my ear, the player. A forty-five degree angle is much closer than ninety degrees. I contacted the Martin Company, and I had Lorraine, who's also an artist, draw me a trumpet at a forty-five degree angle and sent it to the Martin Company. I told them, "I want a horn like this."

"You're crazy!" they said.

"O.K.," I said. "I'm crazy, but I want a horn like this." They made me a trumpet and I've been playing one like that ever since. At first they made it so the bell would screw in at forty-five degrees. Now, we've developed it to where it's all in one piece. One of the things a horn like mine remedies is the problem of holding your instrument too far down when you're reading music. You can never hold this horn down low enough for the bell of it to be below the music stand. Also, in small clubs, you'd be playing right up on people, and a trumpet is a very forceful instrument. If it's played straight at you, it can bust someone's eardrum if you play a hard note in the upper register. My instrument, when you hit a note, Bam! You hear it right then, instead of waiting. It's only a split second, but the split second means a lot.

JAMES "STUMP" CROSS (comedian):

"Well, I'd been drinking, I leaned back on the stand, and as I leaned, I leaned on Dizzy's trumpet. And the bell shot up in the air, and Lorraine shouted, 'Play it! Don't do nothing, play it!'

"And I'm saying, 'How's he gonna play that thing that's bent up there?' and I'm trying to apologize to Dizzy, and she's talking about, 'Play it!' He started playing and played the most unforgettable notes you ever heard on, 'I Can't Get Started With You.' On that horn with the bell turned up, and that was a beauty.

"Diz was there. He was there. He was standing next to me. Leroy Myers, my home boy, was sitting down in front; he left me because of what I'd done. He said, 'Oh, man, you jive...'

"Oh, he was excited. He was excited about it in the beginning because James Moody looked at him and said, 'Man, he done bent your horn.' The horn was on a stand, and as I leaned with my left hand-I'm left-handed, and I always lean that way; I lean left-handed--I leaned on it, and the horn shot up this way. I didn't fall, just leaned back, and the horn bent in the middle; it shot up. And Lorraine called from the back and said, 'Play it!' And he played it. And you know he left me--Leroy left me; Dizzy left me. I lost my friends that night. But now I got friends again. That's what happened. That's what really went on."

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