Fly Fishing Jazz: Dizzy’s Cheeks

Fly Fishing Salmon Head

Eating machine. Photo John Gremmer

I’VE BEEN TO A LOT of great concerts in my life. I believe that the live performance trumps any recording one might hear through speakers or earphones. It’s one thing to hear it; it’s an entirely better experience to see it and hear it at the same time.

One of the best live shows I’ve seen happened many years ago (mid 80s) when I dragged my then-girlfriend (now wife) to the Bird of Paradise nightclub on a frozen winter night in Ann Arbor to see Dizzy Gillespie, who along with Charlie Parker, was one of the greatest “Be-Bop” influences in history.

Granted, by that point in his life, Dizzy’s best notes were well behind him. But when he took that stage, picked up his distinctive trumpet with it’s up-turned bell and started to play, the energy in the room swelled, metaphorically reflecting Dizzy’s billowing cheeks in the smoky haze under the stage lights.

Today, there isn’t one band instructor, music teacher, or trumpet player who would encourage a young player to blow a horn like that, with cheeks puffed. There’s no market for factory-produced trumpets with a 45-degree upsweep. Maybe those were trademarks, even gimmicks, that died with Dizzy in 1993.

But I cannot help but feel, especially as I continue to make the rather large leap of transposing the jazz mindset to fly fishing, that Dizzy Gillespie’s stage presence should encourage all of us to find our own beat, style, and identity.

As I write these columns, I constantly find myself balancing desires to reinforce the need for practicing fundamentals and respecting standards against encouraging free expression, losing the parameters, and improvising for effect.

I’ve decided that I don’t think great things can happen—in jazz, nor in fly fishing—unless you’re willing to do both… ultimately at the same time.

Learn the fundamentals. Respect your elders. Practice to the point of nitty-gritty dirtiness, with all the sweat and toil that entails. But by God, play your own music, wherever that ultimately leads you.

If that sidearm cast with a funky giddy-up puts the fly in the money spot for you more often than not, then who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to tell you to change that delivery? Who dared to tell Dizzy to quit puffin’ as he played?

After all, the puffin’ was the legend.

Your style is your style. Sure, there are ways to get better, and there are recipes that can help correct problems.

But when you find what works for you, stick with it, fish it, and live with it.

Indeed, it’s always about the live performance, and if the audience (the fish) respect and respond—there isn’t anybody in the world who can or should steer you away from that.