Dizzy Gillespie: a founding father of the ‘bebop’ revolution

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina. Gillespie’s father was an amateur bandleader who, although dead by the time Gillespie was ten, had given his son some of his earliest grounding in music. Gillespie began playing trumpet at fourteen after briefly trying the trombone, and his first formal musical training came at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Gillespie’s earliest professional jobs were with the Frankie Fairfax band, where he reportedly picked up the nickname Dizzy because of his outlandish antics. His earliest influence was Roy Eldridge, whom he later replaced in Teddy Hill’s band. From 1939 to 1941, Gillespie was one of the principal soloists in Cab Calloway’s band.

From 1937 to 1944, Gillespie performed with prominent swing bands, including those of Benny Carter and Charlie Barnet. He also began working with musical greats such as Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Jimmy Dorsey and Parker around this time. Working as a bandleader, often with Parker on saxophone, Gillespie developed the musical genre known as “bebop” — a reaction to swing, distinct for dissonant harmonies and polyrhythms. “The music of Charlie Parker and me laid a foundation for all the music that is being played now,” Gillespie said years later. “Our music is going to be the classical music of the future.”

In addition to creating bebop, Gillespie is considered one of the first musicians to infuse Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms with jazz. His work in the Latin jazz genre includes Manteca, A Night in Tunisia and Guachi Guaro, among others.

Gillespie’s own big band, which performed from 1946 to 1950, was his masterpiece, and established himself as both soloist and showman. He became immediately recognizable from the unusual shape of his trumpet, with the bell tilted upward at a 45-degree angle. Gillespie’s best-known works from this period include the songs Oop Bob Sh’ Bam, Groovin’ High, Leap Frog, Salt Peanuts and My Melancholy Baby.

In the late 1950s, Gillespie performed with Ellington, Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges on Ellington’s Jazz Party (1959). The following year, Gillespie released A Portrait of Duke Ellington (1960), an album dedicated to Ellington also featuring the work of Juan Tizol, Billy Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington, son of the legendary musician. Gillespie composed most of the album’s recordings, including Serenade to Sweden, Sophisticated Lady and Johnny Come Lately.

Gillespie died on Jan. 6, 1993, at age 75, in Englewood, N.J.

Bebop (1963)

The song Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie is a stark example of what this unique style of jazz embodies. As one of the founders of the genre, Gillespie composed the hit song Bebop in 1963. According to the music department at the University of Virginia, bebop is performed entirely differently than other jazz sub-genres such as swing. While songs in the swing style (such as Wrappin’ It Up by Fletcher Henderson) are generally performed by a large dance orchestra with sections of trumpets, saxophones, and trombones, bebop is generally performed by a quintet. Generally, only two horns are present. While Gillespie himself was a skilled arranger (successful at creating scores for the rich “wall of sound” that trumpets, trombones and saxophones offer), bebop somehow manages to make do with less. Ultimately, “it conveys all the complexity and passion of jazz in an intimate space.”

In addition to the differences in composition and sound, the bebop style truly embodied Black Americans’ pushback against societal boundaries. Bebop itself as a genre was so opposite and out there in comparison to the classic swing style of jazz. It  “grew out of the culmination of trends that had been occurring within swing since the mid-1930s: less explicit timekeeping by the drummer, a changing role for the piano (away from rhythmic density towards accents and fills), less ornate horn section arrangements, (trending towards riffs and more support for the underlying rhythm), more emphasis on and freedom for soloists, and increasing harmonic sophistication in arrangements used by some bands.”

The lyrics to Dizzy Gillespie’s song Bebop are symbolic of the blatantly different style that this genre offered. Just as the boundaries of jazz were pushed by the bebop revolution, Gillespie’s lyrics to the song are equally as provocative. For example, in the first verse of the song, Gillespie sings about the culture of jazz clubs, and infers that where bebop was playing, the (mostly Black) audiences were pushing societal expectations by letting loose, and demonstrating sexual prowess.

‘Bebop, we walk with our hats on tilt
Pink and white silk, made of shoes on stilts
Dressed as the morning milk, plus, like the quilt
When we rock at the club, no blood got spilt
Where dime piece wizes, had they legs in the air
From being sprung by the swings, so they legs in the air
Long dresses, and they silk brassiere’

In the second verse, Gillespie seems to be making references to the racial elements of American society:

‘From bebop to hip hop, back to bebop
Charlie Parker lids blow hot like boiling tea pot
From pull to press, not white and up tight
To blowin’ horns, to walking with the bass up right
To having our crowns polished, and our face up right
To clean our neighborhood’s and I play somethin’ right’

A Night in Tunisia (1941)

Around 1941, young Gillespie wrote a song that remains among the most popular jazz standards around: A Night in Tunisia. The song marked the beginning of Gillespie’s unique blending of Afro-Cuban rhythms with American jazz.

While A Night in Tunisia is one of Gillespie’s earliest compositions, you can already hear two trademarks of his music: Afro-Cuban rhythms and his innovative approach to harmony and melody, which would fuel a jazz revolution called bebop. Gillespie’s solo break on the tune remains one of the most dramatic moments in jazz.

His use of a Latin rhythm marked a rare departure from the standard walking bass line of 1940s jazz. “A Night in Tunisia plays a very, very important role in being one of the first compositions to have something that’s very common today, which is a non-walking bass line,” trumpeter Jon Faddis says.

When Gillespie came to New York in 1937, the great Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza took him to hear music in Spanish Harlem. Years later, in his autobiography, Gillespie wrote that he’d always had that Latin feeling — that even his early tunes sounded Latin.


Biography.com. “Dizzy Gillespie: Trumpet, Songs, and Bebop.” 2 April, 2014. https://www.biography.com/musician/dizzy-gillespie NEA Masters.

“John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie: Trumpeter, Composer, Bandleader.” National Endowment for the Arts. https://www.arts.gov/honors/jazz/john-birks-dizzy-gillespie

University of Virginia. “Bebop: History of Jazz” MUS1212 Course Assignment Outline, chapter ten. http://people.virginia.edu/~skd9r/MUSI212_new/diagrams/chapter_10_shortened.html The NPR 100.

“A Night In Tunisia” 3 September, 2000. https://www.npr.org/2000/09/03/1081518/a-night-in-tunisia