John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993) was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and composer. Gillespie, with Charlie Parker, was a major figure in the development of bebop, or modern jazz.
Gillespie was a virtuoso instrumentalist and gifted improviser, building on the style of trumpeter Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. He was also instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban jazz, a modern jazz equivalent of what jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton termed the “Spanish Tinge.” Dizzy’s beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks, and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop, which was originally regarded as obscure and threatening by many listeners raised on older styles of jazz. He had an enormous impact on virtually every subsequent trumpeter, both by the example of his playing and as a mentor to younger musicians. His outgoing, enthusiastic temperament made him a natural ambassador of modern jazz, and he was eventually enlisted by the U.S. State Department to tour the Middle East.
Gillespie adopted the Baha’i faith in his later life and came to regard music, and particularly jazz, as a universal language that transcended barriers of race and religion. “Any music that is written to praise God is good—I don’t care what religion it comes under.” Gillespie said. “Music, certainly, can transcend the soul to a higher level.”
Early life and career
John Birks Gillespie was born October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children, to John and Lottie Gillespie. Gillespie’s father was strict and often abusive, although he also owned and played a number of instruments. When Gillespie was ten, his father died and left the family in financial trouble. Despite hardships, Gillespie never forgot his exposure to music at the United Methodist and Sanctified church services, and often praised his music teacher at his segregated grammar school for beginning his education in music at age twelve.
Gillespie soon joined the school band, at first playing the trombone, but soon switching to the trumpet. Gillespie largely taught himself to play and won a scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. However, he dropped out of school in 1935, moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, hoping to work as a full-time musician.
Gillespie moved to New York City in 1937. At age nineteen Gillespie was already gaining notice, and notoriety, among New York musicians, for his radically inventive trumpet solos. Gillespie first joined Frankie Fairfax, then made his recording debut filling for Roy Eldridge in Teddy Hill’s band before leaving for Europe as part of the band’s “Cotton Club” tour.
Gillespie’s exuberance and zaniness on stage earned him the nickname “Dizzy.” “Man, this is a dizzy cat,” trumpeter Palmer Davis said, and the name stuck. Adding to Gillespie’s uniqueness was his trumpet. Bent vertically when a drunken patron stepped on it, the horn produced an altered tone due to the constriction caused by the bending of the instrument, and Gillespie liked the effect. For the rest of his career he would have trumpets constructed for him with the bell intentionally tilted upwards. The bent-bell trumpet became his signature instrument and a part of his iconic image.
After landing a job with Cab Calloway’s group, Gillespie was soon being excoriated for his adventurous solos by his employer, who branded it “Chinese music.” He lost the spot in Calloway’s band for an unrelated reason, however: Calloway accused Gillespie of firing a spitball at him during a concert, and the hot-headed Gillespie stabbed Calloway in the leg with a small knife. Gillespie went through many bands including Duke Ellington’s and Earl “Fatha” Hines’s, and also arranged music for Woody Herman. Gillespie first met saxophonist Charlie Parker in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1940 while touring with Calloway.
The legendary big band of Billy Eckstine gave his unusual harmonies a better setting, and it was as a member of Eckstine’s band that he was reunited with Parker.
The rise of bebop
With Charlie Parker, Gillespie jammed at famous jazz clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, where the first seeds of bebop were planted. Gillespie’s compositions like “Groovin’ High,” “Woody n’ You,” “Anthropology,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “A Night in Tunisia” sounded radically different, harmonically and rhythmically, than the Swing music popular at the time.
After leaving Eckstine, Gillespie formed his own group for an engagement at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. The 52nd Street clubs effectively launched a new jazz style that had previously been played privately at late night jam sessions. “The opening of the Onyx Club represented the birth of the bebop era,” Gillespie wrote in his book, To Be or Not to Bop. Describing the new approach, Gillespie wrote, “We’d take the chord structures of various standard and pop tunes and create new chords, melodies, and songs from them.”
Gillespie influenced many of the young musicians on 52nd Street, like Miles Davis and Max Roach, in the new style of jazz. After a lengthy gig at Billy Berg’s club in Los Angeles, though, which left most of those in the audience ambivalent or hostile towards the new music, the band broke up.
After his work with Parker, Gillespie led other small combos (including ones with Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Lalo Schifrin) and finally put together his first successful big band. While bebop musicians tended to favor small combos, Gillespie wanted to lead a large format group because he feared that the music he helped create was becoming too obtuse and wanted to prove that it could still be danceable. He also appeared frequently as a soloist with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic.
While Dizzy and his orchestra flourished, other bands formerly playing swing began to try bebop instead. By 1950, the movement of big bands towards bebop had peaked and declined, and Gillespie found himself unable to financially maintain his large format group. In March 1952, Gillespie left for France after being invited by Charles Delaunay to play on Salon du Jazz. Gillespie did not have any other commitments during his time in Paris and therefore started to assemble his third big band. Due to his prior success he could now record in the finest studios like Théatre des Champs-Elysées. In 1953 he returned to the United States after a series of successful concerts and recordings. In 1956, he organized a band to go on a State Department tour of the Middle East and earned the nickname “the Ambassador of Jazz.”
In the late 1940s, Gillespie was also involved in the movement called Afro-Cuban music, bringing Latin and African elements to greater prominence in jazz and even pop music, particularly salsa. In addition to Gillespie’s compositions “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo,” he was responsible for commissioning George Russell’s “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” which featured the great but ill-fated Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo. In 1977, Gillespie discovered Arturo Sandoval while researching music during a tour of Cuba.
During the long hours of his touring Gillespie, like the revolutionary saxophonist John Coltrane, sought deeper insight into life and began reading extensively on the Baha’i faith, becoming a Baha’i by 1970. “Becoming a Baha’i changed my life in every way and gave me a new concept of the relationship between God and his fellow man—man and his family,” Gillespie wrote in his memoirs.
Gillespie also adapted Baha’i principles of successive revelation to his perspective of the development of jazz. “Every age in music is important,” he said. “Equally as important as the previous one, and is as important as the one that’s coming after that. The same thing with religion, you know…. [God’s] education of mankind is through these prophets, and each one’s supposed to come for a specific age, so they just keep coming, and after his is over another one takes their place. That’s what the Baha’is teach you…. So I believe that music is the same, too. Messengers come to the music and after their influence starts waning, another one comes with a new idea, and he has a lot of followers.”
“We’re supposed to be joyous creatures, here on this earth, and if you’re anything but joyous, you’re not going by what is meant for you,” Gillespie said in a 1973 interview. “So I try to get as much enjoyment out of life as possible without hurting anybody. Any music that is written to praise God is good—I don’t care what religion it comes under. So there will be, in the future, a groovy number of Baha’is composing music praising God—heavenly music. That’s what you get when you’re dealing in the spirit. We’re dealing in spirit now in jazz. Any work that you do praising God is good. Music, certainly, can transcend the soul to a higher level.”
Later years and death
Unlike his younger contemporary Miles Davis, who went in new directions, first as the leading exponent of cool jazz and later into experimental fusion jazz, Gillespie essentially remained true to the bebop style for the rest of his career. Gillespie’s tone gradually faded in the last years in life, and his performances often focused more on his proteges such as Arturo Sandoval and Jon Faddis; his good-humored comedic routines became more and more a part of his live act.
Gillespie remained prodigiously busy until late in life. In 1989 Gillespie gave 300 performances in 27 countries, appeared in 100 U.S. cities in 31 states and the District of Columbia, headlined three television specials, performed with two symphonies, and recorded four albums. He was also crowned a traditional chief in Nigeria, received the Commandre d’Ordre des Artes et Lettres—France’s most prestigious cultural award—was named regent professor by the University of California, and received his fourteenth honorary doctoral degree, this one from the Berklee College of Music. In addition, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year. The next year, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ceremonies celebrating the centennial of American jazz, Gillespie received the Kennedy Center Honors Award and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Duke Ellington Award for 50 years of achievement as a composer, performer, and bandleader. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Gillespie’s 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, on November 26, 1992, followed the Second Bahá’í World Congress and was to be offered in celebration of the centenary of the passing of Bahá’u’lláh. Gillespie was to appear there at Carnegie Hall for the 33rd time, but was unable to perform because of complications from pancreatic cancer. “But the musicians played their hearts out for him,” wrote Lowell Johnson in The Spiritual Side of Dizzy, “no doubt suspecting that he would not play again. Each musician gave tribute to their friend, this great soul and innovator in the world of jazz.”
He died of in 1993 in Englewood, New Jersey, aged 75, and was buried in the Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York. At the time of his death, Gillespie was survived by his widow, Lorraine Willis Gillespie, a daughter, jazz singer Jeanie Bryson, and one grandson. Gillespie had two funerals: one a Bahá´í ceremony attended by his closest friends and colleagues; the second at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York attended by the the public.
Dizzy Gillespie developed a virtuosic mastery of the trumpet and a technique that was viewed as ahead of its time. “If Armstrong had expanded the reach of instrumental technique for his generation making more things possible,” wrote one critic, “then Gillespie seemed to reach the final theoretical point of command that made all things possible, effectively ending the arms race of capacity that had driven jazz for two decades. His speed, articulation, and sense of surprise showed up in many bebop trumpet players in the years after 1946, but few doubted that he was the master and matrix of it all.
In addition to Gillespie’s instrumental prowess and musical innovation, his lively personality and openness to share his methods and approaches with others helped to ensure his enduring legacy. This collaborative, mentoring and engaging nature was a characteristic that set him apart from some his contemporaries involved in the formation of bebop and thus modern jazz. Unlike Bird, says critic Scott Yanow, “Dizzy was an enthusiastic teacher who wrote down his musical innovations and was eager to explain them to the next generation, thereby insuring that bebop would eventually become the foundation of jazz.”
His personality and his public nature made him a natural ambassador figure both for jazz music (his tours under the auspices of the State department were extremely successful), and for the Baha’i Faith which became so important to him in the latter part of his life. A Bahá’í since 1970, Dizzy Gillespie was one of the most famous adherents of the Bahá’í Faith. The adoption of his faith marked a turning of his life from knife-carrying roughneck to global citizen, and from alcohol to soul force, in the words of author Nat Hentoff, who knew Gillespie for forty years.
In light of his remarkable technical ability, his melodic, harmonic, and stylistic innovations and his charisma and band-leading skills, Dizzy Gillespie is widely considered one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, comparable in stature to Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, and is one of the most well known, admired and accomplished American musicians of the twentieth century.