Along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie was one of the most influential movers in the postwar bebop revolution which gave jazz far wider harmonic horizons than were once thought possible. Dizzy remained ever after one of the leaders of jazz movements, integrating into the mainstream of jazz tradition a penchant for Afro-Cuban rhythms which lent a broad streak of exoticism to his work, especially his extended works for large orchestra.
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born in Cheraw, SC October 21, 1917. His father was an amateur musician who taught him proficiency on several instruments. He started playing trombone at 14 and trumpet at 15. Diz won a scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he studied harmony and theory until his family moved to Philadelphia in 1935.
The man who was known by the Forties for changing the definition of jazz was first known for being able to play like Roy Eldridge. He took Eldridge’s place in the Teddy Hill band early in 1937, and visited and that summer.
Dizzy Gillespie was one of three instrumental stars featured (along with Chu Berry and Cozy Cole) in Cab Calloway’s Band for two years, starting in 1939. During that time he cut over fifty sides on the Vocalion label. Gillespie’s playing was so good that other musicians tolerated an irreverent approach to performing. Dizzy might start dancing during other acts, wear his trumpet bowler on his head, or face his chair away from the audience and play in the direction of nowhere. Still, when Calloway decided that Dizzy had thrown spitballs at him during a performance, he was fired.
By now Gillespie’s style had developed some of the character later known as bop. He worked with the Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman bands; toured with Charlie Barnet and Les Hite. By late 1944 Gillespie was playing with Billy Eckstine’s new big band and both Gillespie and the weird bop were becoming well known. After fronting a combo at the “Three Deuces” on 52nd in 1945, he toured with his own big band.
Sociologically, Gillespie will be remembered as the first jazz leader on whom the government bestowed official recognition (and money) by sponsoring a Gillespie tour of Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Yugoslaviac and Greece. This innovation in diplomacy took place in 1956 and later in the same year the United States State Department once again capitalized on Gillespie’s hypnotic appeal to all audiences by sponsoring his tour of Latin America.
Benny Green, British jazz critic, said of Dizzy: “In recent years, he has worked almost exclusively with groups no larger than a quintet. His style is characterized by double-tempo runs designed to display a truly remarkable technique, a grasp of harmonic movement which can only be described as professorial, and a madcap streak of humor which sometimes manifests itself in eccentric scat vocals. The greatest testimony of all, however, to his vitality as a creative artist is that more than thirty years after the first recorded duets with Charlie Parker, he is still recognized everywhere that jazz is known, as a leading modern spirit.”
“What I want to do is extend everything I’ve done,” said Gillespie. “You know, when an architect builds a building and decides he wants to put on some new wings, it’s still the same building. He keeps on until it’s finished, and when he dies somebody else can take over.”
Dizzy Gillespie died on January 6, 1993.
Bio courtesy of Concord Music Group
Photo courtesy of The Verve Music Group