Born: October 21, 1917 | Died: January 6, 1993 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
John Birks Dizzy Gillespie was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of the 20th century and one of the prime architects of the bebop movement in jazz. Nicknamed Dizzy because of his zany on-stage antics, Gillespie, a brass virtuoso, set new standards for trumpet players with his innovative, jolting rhythmic shifts and ceaseless harmonic explorations on the instrument during the 1940's, which ushered in a definitive change in American jazz music from swing to bebop.
Gillespie, the last of nine children, was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, in 1917 to James and Lottie Gillespie. His father was a bricklayer, pianist and band leader. James Gillespie kept all the instruments from his band in the family home, so the future trumpet great was surrounded by musical instruments from childhood, including his father's large upright piano - James tore down one of the walls of the house to get the piano inside. James demanded that all his children practice instruments. However, none of them except John cared much for music. James died when John Birks was ten, so he never heard his youngest son play trumpet; he did hear him practice piano, since John began playing the intrument at a very early age.
In 1930, Gillespie tried to learn trombone, but his arms were too short to play it well. The same year, however, he started playing a friend's trumpet. When he heard a radio broadcast of the trumpet player Roy Eldridge with the Teddy Hill Orchestra, Gillespie, then 13, fell in love with Eldridge's playing. From that day on, he dreamed of becoming a jazz musician.
In 1933, after graduating from Robert Smalls' secondary school, Gillespie received a music scholarship to attend the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. He stayed there for two years, studying harmony and theory, until his family moved to Philadelphia in 1935. Once in Philadelphia, Gillespie began playing trumpet with local bands. He learned all of his idol Eldridge's solos from records and radio broadcasts; it was also in Philadelphia that he picked up the nickname Dizzy. In 1937, Gillespie moved to New York, replacing Roy Eldridge in Teddy Hill's Orchestra. In 1939, Gillespie was hired to play in Cab Calloway's orchestra; he was fired by Calloway in 1941 after an altercation between the two in which Calloway mistakenly accused Gillespie of firing spitballs at him and Gillespie pulled a knife on Calloway in, he said, self-defense.
In 1937, Gillespie met his future wife, Lorraine, a chorus dancer at the famed Apollo Theater. They were married in 1940 and remained together until his death. Gillespie worked with many bands during the early 1940's - Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Fatha Hines and Billy Eckstine's seminal band - before teaming up with Charlie Parker in 1945. Their revolutionary band ushered in the bebop era and was one of the greatest small bands of the 20th century. An arranger and composer, Gillespie wrote some of the greatest jazz tunes of his era, including Groovin' High, A Night in Tunisia and Manteca, all songs which became jazz classics.
With his trumpet's upturned golden bell - the result, Gillespie stated in his autobiography, of the dancers Stump and Stumpy accidentally falling onto it during a birthday party for his wife - and his goatee, horn rim glasses and beret, Gillespie became a symbol of both jazz and a rebellious, independent spirit during the 1940's and 50's. (One of Gillespie's trumpets sold for $63,000 in 1995.) His interest in Cuban and African music helped to introduce those styles to a mainstream American audience.
In both 1964 and 1972, Gillespie ran for President of the United States. He told Jet Magazine in 1971 that, if elected, he would name the boxer Muhammad Ali Secretary of State and would name Duke Ellington as ambassador to any country he wants to go to. Gillespie did not win the presidency in either year.
In 1970, Gillespie became a follower of the Bahá'í Faith. His belief helped find peace and meaning in his life, and he spoke often about his faith in his later years. The Bahá'í Center in New York honors Gillespie with a yearly memorial service and holds jazz concerts in its John Birks Gillespie Auditorium.
Dizzy Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer in 1993. He was world-famous and much beloved among musicians and listeners. Gillespie influenced generations of musicians who admired and emulated not just his musicianship, his positive, upbeat, optimistic attitude, and the spiritual path he had discovered. As musicians such as Randy Weston and Wynton Marsalis attest, Gillespie continues to influence jazz musicians and listeners to this day.
Awards:New Star Award, Esquire Magazine (1944); Handel Medallion, City of New York (1972); Paul Robeson Award, Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies (1972); Performs "Salt Peanuts" with President Carter at White House Jazz Concert (1978); Inducted into Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1982); Lifetime Achievement Award, National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) (1989); National Medal of Arts, President Bush (1989); Duke Ellington Award, Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (1989); Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1989); Kennedy Center Honors Award (1990); Fourteen honorary degrees, including Ph.D., Rutgers University (1972); Ph.D., Chicago Conservatory of Music (1978); Awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- 1950 – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk - Bird & Diz
- 1952 – Dizzy Gillespie. "Dee Gee Days - The Savoy Sessions"
- 1953 – Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell – Jazz At Massey Hall
- 1953 – Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Max Roach, Herb Ellis - Diz & Getz
- 1954 – Dizzy Gillespie Afro
- 1957 – Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins - Sittin' In
- 1957 – Dizzy Gillespie - At Newport
- 1957 – Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt - Sonny Side Up
- 1959 – Dizzy Gillespie - Have Trumpet, Will Excite
- 1960 – Dizzy Gillespie And His Orchestra - A Portrait Of Duke Ellington
- 1961 – Dizzy Gillespie - An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet
- 1963 – Dizzy Gillespie & The Double Six of Paris
- 1964 – Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Kenny Barron - Jambo Caribe
- 1967 – Dizzy Gillespie - Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac
- 1971 – Dizzy Gillespie with the Mitchell Ruff Duo - Blues People
- 1977 – Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie - The Gifted Ones
- 1981 – Dizzy Gillespie, Digital at Montreux, 1980 (Toots Thielemans, Bernard Purdie)
- 1985 – Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Ameen, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Lonnie Plaxico – New Faces
- 1988 – Dizzy Gillespie, Moe Koffman - Oop Pop a Da
- 1989 – Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra – Live at the Royal Festival Hall London July 10, 1989
- 1990 – The Winter in Lisbon
- 1992 – Groovin' High
- 2001 – Dizzy Gillespie – Ken Burns Jazz
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