Biographical / Historical
Born in South Carolina in 1917, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was a master jazz trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and composer. In the 1940s, he was one of the principal developers of both bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz. Through the multitudes of musicians with whom he played and who he encouraged, he was one of the most influential players in the history of jazz.
The youngest of nine children, Gillespie was exposed to music by his father, a part-time bandleader who kept all his band's instruments at home, where young Gillespie tried them out. At age twelve, he received a music scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he played trumpet in the school band. In 1935, at age eighteen, he moved to Philadelphia and joined his first band, where his clownish onstage behavior and sense of humor earned him his nickname, "Dizzy." Thereafter, he was almost constantly joining and leaving, or forming and disbanding, bands of various size and style, as he set out to first hone his talent, then to develop his own creative innovations and to publish his recordings, and then to fulfill his lifelong desire to lead his own band. Along the way, he played with, collaborated with, encouraged, and influenced, all of the major – and most of the minor – jazz musicians of his age, including Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, and John Coltrane.
In 1937, Gillespie moved to New York, where he joined Teddy Hill's band; with Hill he made his first overseas tour, to England and France. By 1939, he had joined Cab Calloway's band and also had received his first exposure to Afro-Cuban music. In 1940, Gillespie met Charlie "Bird" Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke and together they began developing a distinctive, more complex style of jazz that became known as bebop or bop. In the early 1940s, Gillespie made several recordings of this new sound. In 1945, he formed and led his own big band, which was quickly downsized into a quintet due to financial problems. He was able to reform the band the next year and keep it together for four years, but it was disbanded in 1950. During this time, he began to incorporate Latin and Cuban rhythms into his work. In 1953, a dancer accidentally fell on his trumpet and bent the bell. Gillespie decided he liked the altered tone and thereafter had his trumpets specially made that way.
In 1956, after leading several small groups, the U.S. State Department asked Gillespie to assemble a large band for an extensive cultural tour to Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia; a second tour, to South America, took place several months later. Although he kept the band together for two more years, the lack of government funding prevented him from keeping such a large group going and he returned to leading small ensembles. In 1964, displaying the humor for which he was well-known, Gillespie put himself forward as a candidate for President.
Gillespie continued to tour, perform, record, and to collaborate with a wide range of other musicians throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to encourage new styles and new talents, such as Arturo Sandoval, whom he discovered during a 1977 visit to Cuba. In 1979, Gillespie published his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop. In the late 1980s, he organized and led the United Nations Orchestra, a 15-piece ensemble that showcased the fusion of Latin and Caribbean influences with jazz. In these later years, although still performing, he began to slow down and enjoy the rewards of his extraordinary talent. He received several honorary degrees, was crowned a chief in Nigeria, was awarded the French Commandre d'Ordre des Artes et Lettres, won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and received both the Kennedy Center Medal of Arts and the ASCAP Duke Ellington Award for 50 Years of Achievement as a composer, performer, and bandleader. Dizzy Gillespie passed away on January 6, 1993.