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.