Gillespie, John Birks (“Dizzy”)
Gillespie, John Birks (“Dizzy”)
(b. 21 October 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina; d. 6 January 1993 in Englewood, New Jersey), virtuoso improviser on trumpet and a major figure in jazz history who led the bebop and Latin jazz revolutions.
Gillespie was the son of James Gillespie, a bricklayer and part-time bandleader, and Lottie Powe, a homemaker; he was the youngest of seven children to survive infancy. Gillespie was bathed in music as a child as he listened to rehearsals of his father’s band and absorbed ecstatic gospel music at nearby churches. He fell in love with the trumpet while playing in a school band at age twelve and was soon practicing several hours each day. When the young Gillespie saw how deeply comedy and music moved people, it stirred in him the desire to be a performer, to mount a stage and transform the emotions of an audience. His professional performances joined music with showmanship, in the tradition of idols such as Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.
His father’s death when Gillespie was ten threw the family into poverty. Facing years of manual labor at age fifteen because his hometown black school ended at the ninth grade, he was fortunate to win a full scholarship at the Laurinburg Institute, an all-black North Carolina boarding school. There he found economic security and the opportunity to spend almost limitless hours honing his skills on trumpet and piano. He used the piano to explore chordal harmony and began the harmonic innovations that became a key aspect of bebop. Gillespie was almost entirely self-taught musically; one consequence of this was that he allowed his cheeks to puff out—something professionally trained trumpeters are taught not to do—when he played. In later life, his cheeks became a visual symbol, a trademark, but he discounted their importance in his playing.
Gillespie was an accomplished musician when he left Laurinburg at the age of seventeen to join his family in Philadelphia, where they had recently moved to escape the grinding poverty and racist environment of South Carolina. Too poor to buy a case—he carried his trumpet in a paper bag—the nickname “Dizzy” began in 1935 when the pianist Bill Doggett said, “That little dizzy cat’s from down south carries his horn around in a paper bag [sic].” Gillespie’s constant clowning, such as dancing in the trumpet section and wearing an overcoat and gloves to a May audition, solidified the use of the nickname in the months following. Within a year, he was featured in a local band at $45 a week, a princely sum in 1936. At this time, he came under the influence of Roy Eldridge, the fiery star who was the first to develop a trumpet style not fully indebted to the reigning king, Louis Armstrong.
Gillespie’s big break came in 1937 when, because he sounded like Eldridge, Teddy Hill hired him to fill the trumpet chair recently vacated by Eldridge in New York City. Gillespie was happily married to Lorraine Willis from May 1940 until his death in 1993, and he maintained several strong and affectionate long-term friendships. He and his wife spent their last twenty-five years in a large, comfortable home in Englewood, New Jersey; they had no children.
From 1938 to 1945, while employed mostly by big bands led by Cab Calloway, Charlie Barnett, Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine, Gillespie created the bebop revolution with saxophonist Charlie Parker, drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Thelonious Monk, and guitarist Charlie Christian (who died in 1942). Their main venues were two famous Harlem clubs, Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, where they developed their ideas in extended jam sessions.
Frustrated with the prevailing swing aesthetic of the late 1930s, which did not allow them to express their emotions with the rhythmic and harmonic materials at hand, Gilles-pie and his cohorts radically transformed those materials through their new language of bebop. The most fundamental changes were rhythmic. They replaced swing’s insistent time-keeping beat of the bass drum with a shimmering, fluid pulse, played on a cymbal. An even more important development was that the drummer, with his free hand and his feet, was enjoined to create polyrhythmic effects to complement and comment upon the lines that his bandmates were playing.
Before bebop, jazz harmony (with a few exceptions such as the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum) was at about the level of mid-nineteenth-century classical music. Beboppers, however, were determined to use any and all combinations of notes available in Western music, and they opened harmonic floodgates. Between 1938 and 1945 they moved jazz harmony from Johannes Brahms to Béla Bartók and beyond. Gillespie, the most systematic thinker among the revolutionaries, became the main architect of the new harmonies and rhythms as he wrote down and codified them for his colleagues. Among their outstanding small-group bebop CDs are the two Media 7 series (Dizzy Gillespie, volumes 1–8, and Charlie Parser, volumes 1— 5), Jazz at Massey Hall 1953 (which won a 1995 Grammy as one of the great recordings of all time), and Max & Dizzy, Paris 1989.
The bebop revolution was a group effort, but Gillespie almost single-handedly created Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz. Like the American variety, Latin jazz can be viewed as an overlay of European harmony on an African rhythmic base, except that Latin rhythms are more purely African and much more complex. Gillespie relished this rich percussive stew, and after 1947, when he hired the phenomenal Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, he made a Latin repertoire and Latin musicians central to his music. His last great group, the United Nation Orchestra, consisted of three Brazilians, three Cubans, a Panamanian, a Dominican, a Puerto Rican, and six Americans. It won him a 1991 Grammy for the CD Live at Royal Festival Hall.
From 1946 to 1950, Gillespie led one of the greatest of all big bands. With it he proved that the complexities of bebop and Latin jazz could be adapted to the big band idiom in powerful and wildly exciting arrangements. Television diminished the big band audience after 1950, however, and Gillespie led such groups only sporadically during the rest of his career. Along with the United Nation Orchestra, his most notable large aggregation was the orchestra with which he toured the Middle East, Greece, and South America for the State Department in 1956. Outstanding musicians who performed in Gillespie’s big bands were Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, John Lewis, Chano Pozo, Kenny Clarke, James Moody, Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Quincy Jones, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Phil Woods, Benny Golson, J. J. Johnson, Melba Liston, and Danilo Perez. Key big band recordings are Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, Dizzy In South America 1956 (volumes 1 and 2), and Live at Royal Festival Hall.
During the last four decades of his career Gillespie usually led quartets and quintets, using such outstanding side-men as Moody, Lalo Schifrin, Kenny Barron, Mike Longo, Brown, Leo Wright, and Jon Faddis. He also toured extensively with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic groups and recorded many times for Granz’s labels. His playing reached a peak in the mid-1970s when his still-dazzling technique was matched by a hard-earned emotional maturity. Important CDs from this period are Dizzy Gillespie’s Big 4 (1974), with Brown, and the Grammy-winning Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie (1975). Gillespie was a prolific composer whose outstanding songs included “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo,” with Walter (“Gil”) Fuller and Chano Pozo; “A Night in Tunisia,” with Frank Paparelli; “Anthropology,” with Charlie Parker; “Con Alma”; “Kush”; and “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.” In 1990 the singer Jeanie Bryson, born in 1958, alleged that she was Gillespie’s illegitimate daughter. In the mid-1990s she initiated a lawsuit to claim part of his estate.
One of the few jazzmen of his generation to become an international pop icon, Gillespie was a master of public relations. He played with an upward-swept trumpet after his horn was bent accidentally in 1953, and the new shape became his logo, recognizable throughout the world. His mock run for the U.S. presidency in 1964 garnered him wide publicity, and his warm and humorous personality guaranteed him many appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and other highly visible showcases. Gillespie loved to teach and generously shared his gifts with great musicians and grade-school children alike.
Plunged into depression by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Gillespie, born a Methodist, found solace in the Baha’i faith, which he joined later that year and adhered to deeply for the rest of his life.
Gillespie performed at a consistently high level until early 1992 when he was felled by the pancreatic cancer that would kill him a year later. Between 1980 and 1992 he received ten honorary degrees, bringing his total to seventeen, and in 1989 he won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. France made him a Commandeur D’Ordre des Artes et des Lettres in 1989, and he received a Kennedy Center Honor, America’s highest artistic award, in 1990.
Gregarious and energetic, Gillespie possessed a tremendous drive to define and achieve his goals. He was a dedicated teacher, preaching his musical gospel to professional musicians and schoolchildren alike. He loved to perform and was not daunted by the rigors of the road, where he spent more than half of his professional life. More than eight thousand people attended his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where Mayor David Dinkins called him the “eighth wonder of the world,” and Wynton Marsalis, the director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Program, said, “We’ve lost one of the true giants, not just of music, but of humanity.” In a letter read at the ceremony, President Bill Clinton wrote, “America and the world have lost one of the creative geniuses of the twentieth century.”
To Be, or Not … to Bop, Memoirs (1999), is a re-released edition of Gillespie’s 1979 autobiographical work with Al Fraser. Biographies include Alyn Shipton, Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie (1999) and four valuable shorter works: Raymond Horricks, Dizzy Gillespie (1984), Barry McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, His Life & Times (1988), Tony Gentry, Dizzy Gillespie (1991), and Leslie Gourse, Dizzy Gillespie and the Birth of Bebop (1994). Valuable information is also in Carl Woideck, Charlie Parser: His Music and Life (1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times (7 Jan. 1993), London Sunday Times (10 Jan. 1993), People (18 Jan. 1993), Village Voice (19 Jan. 1993), New Yorker (25 Jan. 1993), and New Republic (8 Feb. 1993).
Donald L. Maggin