Dizzy Gillespie is considered one of the most influential figures of jazz and bebop. He developed his own signature style, known as “bebop,” and worked with musical greats like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.
Dizzy Gillespie, byname of John Birks Gillespie was born October 21, 1917, Cheraw, South Carolina, U.S.—died January 6, 1993, Englewood, New Jersey.
Gillespie’s father was a bricklayer and amateur bandleader who introduced his son to the basics of several instruments. After his father died in 1927, Gillespie taught himself the trumpet and trombone; for two years he attended the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he played in the band and took music classes.
When he was 18 years old, Gillespie moved with his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He joined the Frankie Fairfax Orchestra not long after, and then relocated to New York City, where he performed with Teddy Hill and Edgar Hayes in the late 1930s. Gillespie went on to join Calloway’s band in 1939, with whom he recorded “Pickin’ the Cabbage”—one of Gillespie’s first compositions and regarded by some in the jazz world as his first attempt to bring a Latin influence into his work.
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, Gillespie played in a number of bands, including those led by Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Billy Eckstine. He also took part in many late-night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, a New York City nightclub, and was among the club’s regulars who pioneered the bebop sound and style (others included Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach). In 1944 the first bebop recording session included Gillespie’s “Woody ’n’ You” and featured Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins. Ultimately, Charlie Parker and Gillespie were regarded as cofounders of the bebop movement; the two worked together in several small groups in the 1940s and early ’50s. Although Parker was easily irritated by Gillespie’s onstage antics, their musical relationship seemed to benefit from their personal friction and their competitive solos were inventive, even inspired.
In addition to creating bebop, Gillespie is considered one of the first musicians to infuse Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms with jazz. Gillespie was introduced to Chano Pozo in 1947 by Mario Bauza, a Latin jazz trumpet player. Chano Pozo became Gillespie’s conga drummer for his band. Gillespie also worked with Mario Bauza in New York jazz clubs on 52nd Street and several famous dance clubs such as the Palladium and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They played together in the Chick Webb band and Cab Calloway’s band, where Gillespie and Bauza became lifelong friends. Gillespie helped develop and mature the Afro-Cuban jazz style. Afro-Cuban jazz was considered bebop-oriented, and some musicians classified it as a modern style. Afro-Cuban jazz was successful because it never decreased in popularity and it always attracted people to dance. Gillespie’s work in the Latin-jazz genre includes “Manteca,” “A Night in Tunisia” and “Guachi Guaro,” among other recordings.
Gillespie’s own big band, which performed from 1946 to 1950, was his masterpiece, affording him scope 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—the result of someone accidentally sitting on it in 1953, but to good effect, for when he played it afterward, he discovered that its new shape improved the instrument’s sound quality, and he had it incorporated into all his trumpets thereafter. 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.”
During the 1964 United States presidential campaign the artist, with tongue in cheek, put himself forward as an independent write-in candidate.
He promised that if he were elected, the White House would be renamed the Blues House, and he would have a cabinet composed of Duke Ellington (Secretary of State), Miles Davis (Director of the CIA), Max Roach (Secretary of Defense), Charles Mingus (Secretary of Peace), Ray Charles (Librarian of Congress), Louis Armstrong (Secretary of Agriculture), Mary Lou Williams (Ambassador to the Vatican), Thelonious Monk (Travelling Ambassador) and Malcolm X (Attorney General). He said his running mate would be Phyllis Diller. Campaign buttons had been manufactured years before by Gillespie’s booking agency as a joke but proceeds went to Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr.; in later years they became a collector’s item. In 1971, he announced he would run again but withdrew before the election.
Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker, Gillespie encountered an audience member after a show. They had a conversation about the oneness of humanity and the elimination of racism from the perspective of the Bahá’í Faith. Impacted by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, he became a Bahá’í in 1968. The universalist emphasis of his religion prodded him to see himself more as a global citizen and humanitarian, expanding on his interest in his African heritage. His spirituality brought out generosity and what author Nat Hentoff called an inner strength, discipline, and “soul force”.
Gillespie’s conversion was most affected by Bill Sears’ book Thief in the Night. Gillespie spoke about the Bahá’í Faith frequently on his trips abroad. He is honored with weekly jazz sessions at the New York Bahá’í Center in the memorial auditorium.
In the 1980s, Gillespie led the United Nation Orchestra. For three years Flora Purim toured with the Orchestra. She credits Gillespie with improving her understanding of jazz.
In December 1991, during an engagement at Kimball’s East in Emeryville, California, he suffered a crisis from what would turn out to be pancreatic cancer. He performed one more night but cancelled the rest of the tour due to his medical problem, ending his 56-year touring career. He led his last recording session on January 25, 1992.
On November 26, 1992, Carnegie Hall, following the Second Bahá’í World Congress, celebrated Gillespie’s 75th birthday concert and his offering to the celebration of the centenary of the passing of Bahá’u’lláh. Gillespie was to appear at Carnegie Hall for the 33rd time. The line-up included Jon Faddis, James Moody, Paquito D’Rivera, and the Mike Longo Trio with Ben Brown on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. But Gillespie didn’t make it because he was in bed suffering from pancreatic cancer. “But the musicians played their real hearts out for him, 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.
Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993 at the age of 75 and was buried in Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York City. Mike Longo delivered a eulogy at his funeral.