Dizzy was born John Birks Gillespie in
Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917 to a family of ten. His father, a local
bandleader, encouraged Gillespie's musical progress and made instruments
available to the child early on. At four years old, John was already playing
the piano. He then taught himself to play the trombone but switched to the
trumpet before the age of twelve. He received a music scholarship to the small
agricultural school, the
Institute, Laurinburg, North Carolina.
He left the school in 1935 to pursue a career as a musician, following his idol, Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, the great early bop trumpeter who pioneered black musicianship in a white band. He joined the Frankie Fairfax Band in Philadelphia and soon earned the nickname "Dizzy" for his comical stage antics. In 1937, he took Roy Eldridge's old position in the Teddy Hill Band and made his first recording in Hill's rendition of "King Porter Stomp." After a short stay with the band including a tour through Europe, Dizzy freelanced for a year and found his way to Cab Calloway in 1939. It was with this premier band that Dizzy began to develop a style more his own and less like Roy Eldridge, as you can hear in "Pickin' the Cabbage." Calloway, annoyed by Dizzy's risky style, was not particularly fond of Dizzy and called his solos "Chinese music." Despite this, Dizzy stayed with the band until 1941, when there was an on-stage occurrence that, although resolved, prompted Dizzy to leave the band.
During a concert, a band member shot spitballs at Cab's back when he faced the audience. Cab accused Dizzy of being the culprit and upon Dizzy's vehement denial, the two began to fight. Dizzy grabbed a knife and actually cut Cab. Although the two made up after Jonah Jones and Milt Hinton came forward as the perpetrators, Dizzy was fired. The real legacy of his time in the band would only be realized decades later for, having roomed the whole time with Mario Bauza, Dizzy had begun to take an interest in Afro-Cuban music...
Passing from band to band for the next few years, among which were those led by Ella Fitgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Fess Williams, Les Hite, Claude Hopkins, Lucky Millinder and even the great Duke Ellington for a short while, Dizzy met and began a long friendship with Charlie Parker.
During this transient period, Dizzy began appearing at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House where he could try out his new ideas and styles. Often joining him was Thelonious Monk, another fine native of the Carolinas, and the two began to experiment with the complex chord changes that would soon characterize the Bebop Era...not to mention familiarizing jazz with the black horn-rimmed glasses, beret and goatee that would be just as much a part of the era.
Late in 1942, Dizzy joined the Earl Hines's band with Charlie Parker joined on tenor and the band was the first to explore the bebop style. From this band was born "Night In Tunisia," Dizzy's famous piece that ushered in the Bebop Era.
When Billy Eckstine left the Earl Hines Band to form his own big band, Dizzy, Charlie and Sarah Vaughan defected as well to make the first bebop big band.
After staying with Eckstine a while and
recording such notable hits as "Opus X" and "Blowin' The Blues Away", Dizzy
again joined up with Coleman Hawkins for several bebop sessions. These early
years of bebop were hard on Dizzy because the style was still not completely
accepted by mainstream jazz. He led his own band on the ill-fated "Hepsations
of 1945" southern tour and went to the West Coast with Parker, only to return to
New York early after discouraging turnouts for his gigs.
Finally, as bebop became more accepted, Dizzy rose to prominence as one of its stars. Bebop proponany and producer Leonard Feather held sessions to assemble the leaders of the 52nd Street scene, Dizzy's band being a frontrunner. The year had seen the creation of a successful orchestra, drawing on such talent as vibist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Al Haig, tenor saxophonist Don Byas, drummer J.C. Heard, and guitarist Bill De Arango. The resulting music was sensational: "52nd Street Theme," named this by Feather for its representation of the scene, featured Byas and Gillespie playing frenzied choruses based on other pieces and a cycle of fifths..."Night in Tunisia"also featured Dizzy's double-time runs, bringing boundless energy to the Gillespie classic..."Anthropology" even featured lines from "We're In The Money," serving as a reminder of what freedom the music allowed. After these orchestrations, Dizzy Gillespie stood atop what was a powerful jazz movement, finally taking its place as the frontrunning jazz style.
Testament to the power of the music was
the ease with which the orchestra moved past obstacles. Time and Life
both ran critical articles, but Dizzy's band didn't even stumble. In fact, it
was still charting the path for bebop jazz, adding to its lineup tenor
saxophonist James Moody, baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, and pianist John
Lewis. Fuelled by his rising popularity, Dizzy became increasingly interested
Afro-Cuban music and began to experiment in the area. He turned to his old
friend, Mario Bauza, who in turn introduced him to Chano Pozo. The union of the
two musicians bore "Cubana Be," a duet that constitutes the first half of "Cubana
Be/Cubana Bop," Dizzy's collaboration with George Russell. He would later work
closely with Arturo Sandoval, who he fondly called "my first son."
Dizzy continued playing for years more, all the while experimenting with new music styles, and just new things in general. In 1964, he ran for president of the United States on a platform of Vietnam withdrawal, desegregation, and a national lottery. In 1977, continuing his interest in Cuban music, he visited Cuba and had his picture taken with Fidel Castro. Although this did not make him a favorite around the State Department, President Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House. This seemed to end Dizzy's time in the political limelight and he continued touring, but not as extensively as before.
In 1987, Dizzy played in a band with his protege, Jon Faddis, but made few appearances after that.
Dizzy died of pancreatic cancer in Englewood, New Jersey with his wife Lorraine in 1993. He is survived by his jazz legacy. He is, after all, in Ira Gitler's words, a jazz immortal.
Chu Berry Cozy Cole Jonah Jones Milton Hinton Ben Webster