Gillespie, Dizzy (actually, John Birks)

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Gillespie, Dizzy (actually, John Birks)

Gillespie, Dizzy (actually, John Birks), bebop trumpeter, composer, leader, and singer, revered by musicians for his brilliance, personal warmth, sense of humor, and generosity in sharing his knowledge; b. Cheraw, S.C., Oct. 21, 1917; d. Englewood, N.J., Jan. 7, 1993. His father was a mason and weekend bandleader who played several instruments. To help out his family, Dizzy left school in the ninth grade to work. Two years later, he began to teach himself trombone and trumpet. He formed a trio (trumpet, piano, and drums) and was good enough to be accepted at the Laurinberg Inst. (N.C.); a full scholarship allowed him to concentrate on trumpet and piano. He left before his last year (1935) to rejoin his family in Philadelphia; he played there with Frankie Fairfax, earning his nickname at that time for his on- and offstage antics. He learned several Roy Eldridge solos from Charlie Shavers. He also became famous for his highly unorthodox bulging cheeks, resulting from a lack of training. (He was later diagnosed with a medical condition that prevented him from blowing in the recommended manner.) Moving to N.Y, he joined Teddy Hill’s Band at the Savoy Ballroom (1937), replacing Eldridge, and made his first recordings (and first solo on “King Porter Stomp”); he toured Europe with Hill later that year. He joined Cab Calloway’s big band (1939), where he was first exposed to Afro-Cuban music through bandmate Mario Bauza. It was the beginning of a lifelong association with Latin music. He met Charlie Parker in Kansas City (1940); shortly thereafter, Parker moved to N.Y. He, Dizzy, and others would go to Harlem clubs, especially Minton’s, to jam and work on new ideas after Galloway’s last set. In 1941 Galloway fired Dizzy for threatening him with a knife. He worked briefly with big bands led by Ella Fitzgerald, Claude Hopkins, Les Hite, Lucky Millinder, Charlie Barnet, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Carter. He led a small band at the Downbeat Club in Philadelphia (1942) prior to joining Earl Hines for several months.

The 1940s saw Gillespie begin a lifelong pattern of switching between big bands and small groups. His big band work included stints with Duke Ellington (1943). Billy Eckstine (1944), and his own ensemble (1945-50). He co-led a small band at the Onyx Club, N.Y. with Oscar Pettiford, and had brief spells in other small bands, including John Kirby’s Sextet. During this period he gained the reputation of being one of the leading and most articulate exponents of bebop. In 1945, Benny Goodman’s group in Billy Rose’s 7 Lively Arts (a high brow Broadway revue) was replaced by Tiny Grimes’s group with Gillespie. Later that year, his group with Parker appeared at the Three Deuces, N.Y., and in Philadelphia. During the next few years his big band played in N.Y. and toured the eastern U.S. In 1947, Bauza introduced him to Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, who joined the band; the group performed and recorded numbers such as ’Tin Tin Deo” and “Manteca.” Financial pressures forced Gillespie to temporarily give up the big band (1950), but he performed, recorded, and toured with big bands for the rest of his life. He resumed touring with a small group (with John Coltrane, 1950-51). He formed his own label, Dee Gee, in Detroit, one of the first to be owned by a jazz artist; but it went broke before he could recoup his investment. In 1953 someone accidentally fell on and bent his trumpet while it sat upright on a stand. After playing it he discovered he liked the sound and the fact that it was easier to hear oneself; he had trumpets built for him in that shape from then on.

In 1956 Gillespie became the first jazz musician appointed by the U.S. State Dept. to undertake a cultural mission. With the help of Quincy Jones, he formed a big band to tour the Middle East; a few months later he traveled on another sponsored tour to South America, cut short partly because of complaints about using taxpayer money to support a jazz band. His quintet performed a vast number of international engagements through the 1980s; he also toured with JATP. In 1963 he half-jokingly began a campaign to run as an independent candidate for president; he almost got on the ballot in Calif, and received many write-in votes despite his withdrawal beforehand. “Dizzy for Presi-dent” campaign buttons were made up; proceeds from their sale eventually went to civil rights organizations. In 1971-72, he guested in an all-star touring line-up called the Giants of Jazz. His connection with the Latin world led to a number of visits to Cuba, despite the U.S. embargo; he became an important presence on the Cuban jazz scene, mentoring Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and many others.

Gillespie appeared before four U. S. presidents at the White House, received numerous honors (including the Paul Robeson Award, 1972, and the National Medal of Art, 1989), and performed for governments throughout the world. In 1989-91, he toured with the so-called United Nations Band that crossed the U.S.; the tour introduced David Sanchez, and Danilo Perez to the wider public. Among his film appearances were Jivin’ in BebopM (1946) and Winter in Lisbon (1990). He pursued his almost nonstop schedule as late as 1991, with concerts here and abroad, festival and TV appearances, and magazine interviews. After his death, the San Francisco Jazz Festival and his estate established the Dizzy Gillespie Jazz Education Fund. The singer Jeanie Bryson is his daughter.


GrooviriHigh (1945); Hot House (1945); Salt Peanuts (1945); Shaw Nw/(1945); One Bass Hit (1946); Live at the Spotlite (1946); Live at Carnegie Hall (1947); Bebop Enters Sweden (1947); At the Downbeat Club (1947); And His Big Band (1948); At Salle Pleyel (1948); School Days (1951); Champ (1951); In Paris (1952);;D. G./Stan Getz Sextet (1953); Concert in Paris (1953); And His Orch. (1954); Afro (1954); Tour de Force (1955); One Night in Washington (1955); World Statesman (1956); Dizzy in Greece (1956); Greatest Trumpet of Them All (1957); For Musicians Only (1957); And Stuff Smith (1957); At Newport (1957); Have Trumpet, Will Excite! (1959); Ebullient Mr. Gillespie (1959); Portrait of Duke Ellington (1960); Perceptions (1961); Gillespiana (1961); Electrifying Evening (1961); Carnegie Hall Concert (1961); An Electrifying Evening with the D. G. Quintet (1961); New Continent (1962); Dizzy on the French Riviera (1962); And the Double Six of Paris (1963); Something Old, Something New (1963); Cool World (1964); Reunion Big Band (1968); Big Four (1974); Trumpet Kings at Montreux 75 (1975); Big Seven (1975); Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods (1975); Gifted Ones (1977); Musician-Composer-Raconteur (1981); Meets Phil Woods (1986); Live at Royal Festival Hall (1989); Winter in Lisbon (soundtrack, 1990); Bebop and Beyond Plays (1991); To Diz with Love (1992); To Bird with Love: Live at the Blue Note (1992). C. PARKER : Bird & Diz (1950). C. PARKER, B. POWELL, C. MINGUS, M. ROACH : Greatest Jazz Concert Ever (1953). R. ELDRIDGE : Trumpet Battle (1954). S. ROLLINS : Duets (1957). C. COREA : Jazz for a Sunday Afternoon (1967). B. HACKETT, M. L. WILLIAMS : Giants (1974). M. ROACH : In Paris (1989).


I Michael James, D. G. (London, 1959); Raymond Horricks, D. G. and the Be-Bop Revolution (Tunbridge Wells, U.K., 1984); Gene Lees, Waiting for Dizzy (Oxford, 1987); Alyn Shipton, Groovin’ High: The Life ofD. G. (N.Y., 1999).

—Lewis Porter/John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz

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Gillespie, Dizzy (actually, John Birks)

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