October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina
January 6, 1993 in Englewood, NJ
John Birks Gillespie
Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was the youngest of nine children born to James and Lottie Gillespie. James was a local bandleader, which meant that the young John Birks (as he was known at the time) had a lot of exposure to music as a child. At age twelve he began to seriously study music, and dropped out of boarding school at seventeen to move to Philadelphia, where he began to work as a musician.
A Young Virtuoso:
Dizzy Moved to New York in 1937. Soon after arriving, he replaced the virtuosic Roy Eldridge in the trumpet section of the Teddy Hill Orchestra. Dizzy’s mature style, which was characterized by breakneck melodies that often soared into the upper register, was influenced mainly by Eldridge, whose emphasis on nimbly executed linear bursts contrasted from the lyrical and unhurried style of Louis Armstrong.
Seeds of Afro-Cuban Music and Bebop:
The late 1930s and early 1940s proved to be the most important in Gillespie’s career. In 1939 he joined Cab Calloway’s group, which included the Cuban-born trumpeter Mario Bauzá, who taught Gillespie the basics of Afro-Cuban music and its relationship to jazz. Gillespie continued to explore the combination of the two styles, and was partly responsible for bringing Afro-Cuban music into the palette from which jazz musicians draw today. His most famous experiment with Afro-Cuban music is his composition “Manteca.”
Throughout the early 1940s, Gillespie found himself playing alongside the brilliant alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Both masterful technicians played together in big bands led by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, and they soon formed a musical kinship. They performed in small groups, abandoning relaxed swing feels for rapid tempos and darting melodies. Their style, which came to be known as bebop, became highly influential, although it was not initially well received by older musicians.
An Iconic Bandleader:
As bebop spread in popularity, so did Gillespie’s image and onstage persona. The nickname “Dizzy” supposedly came as a result of his humor and antics while performing. His custom-made trumpet, with the bell curved upward, became entwined with his image. Also, his style of dress and goatee set a trend among the fashion-conscious. His iconic status earned Gillespie success as a performing and recording artist, and he led big bands for the rest of his career, featuring his fiery trumpet solos and dazzling compositions and arrangements.
In 1956 Gillespie was invited to lead a racially diverse big band on tours throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America in an attempt to promote democracy and United States culture in developing countries during the cold war. He continued to tour throughout the 60s, incorporating a multi-cultural approach to music that was perhaps inspired by his involvement in the Baha’i faith, which stresses racial and religious unity.
He continued his work as a musical ambassador by leading a jazz cruise to Cuba in 1977, being the first to travel to the island in seventeen years. Throughout the late 1980s, he toured the world with his United Nations Orchestra.
Performing until his last years, Gillespie took on a paternal role as a veteran musician. He focused on jazz education and encouraging young talented musicians. Some of the artists whose careers he helped launch have gone on to become pillars in the jazz world, including Danilo Perez, Paquito D’Rivera, and John Faddis.
Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer in 1993, marking the end of the life and career of one of the greatest contributors to modern jazz.