Gillespie in concert, Deauville, Normandy, France, July 1991
|John Birks Gillespie|
October 21, 1917|
Cheraw, South Carolina, U.S.
|Died||January 6, 1993
Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.
Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic and rhythmic complexity previously unheard in jazz. His combination of musicianship, showmanship, and wit made him a leading popularizer of the new music called bebop. His beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality provided some of bebop's most prominent symbols.
In the 1940s Gillespie, with Charlie Parker, became a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz. He taught and influenced many other musicians, including trumpeters Miles Davis, Jon Faddis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Arturo Sandoval, Lee Morgan,Chuck Mangione, and balladeer Johnny Hartman.
AllMusic's Scott Yanow wrote: "Dizzy Gillespie's contributions to jazz were huge. One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, Gillespie was such a complex player that his contemporaries ended up being similar to those of Miles Davis and Fats Navarro instead, and it was not until Jon Faddis's emergence in the 1970s that Dizzy's style was successfully recreated [....] Arguably Gillespie is remembered, by both critics and fans alike, as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time".
Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children of James and Lottie Gillespie. James was a local bandleader, so instruments were made available to the children. Gillespie started to play the piano at the age of four. Gillespie's father died when he was only ten years old.
Gillespie taught himself how to play the trombone as well as the trumpet by the age of twelve. From the night he heard his idol, Roy Eldridge, play on the radio, he dreamed of becoming a jazz musician.
Gillespie's first professional job was with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra in 1935, after which he joined the respective orchestras of Edgar Hayes and Teddy Hill, essentially replacing Roy Eldridge as first trumpet in 1937. Teddy Hill's band was where Gillespie made his first recording, "King Porter Stomp". In August 1937 while gigging with Hayes in Washington D.C., Gillespie met a young dancer named Lorraine Willis who worked a Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York City circuit which included the Apollo Theater. Willis was not immediately friendly but Gillespie was attracted anyway. The two finally married on May 9, 1940. They remained married until his death in 1993.
Gillespie stayed with Teddy Hill's band for a year, then left and free-lanced with numerous other bands. In 1939, Gillespie joined Cab Calloway's orchestra, with which he recorded one of his earliest compositions, the instrumental "Pickin' the Cabbage", in 1940. (Originally released on Paradiddle, a 78rpm backed with a co-composition with Cozy Cole, Calloway's drummer at the time, on the Vocalion label, No. 5467).
After a notorious altercation between the two men, Calloway fired Gillespie in late 1941. The incident is recounted by Gillespie, along with fellow Calloway band members Milt Hinton and Jonah Jones, in Jean Bach's 1997 film, The Spitball Story. Calloway did not approve of Gillespie's mischievous humor, nor of his adventuresome approach to soloing; according to Jones, Calloway referred to it as "Chinese music". Finally, their grudge for each other erupted over a thrown spitball. Calloway never thought highly of Gillespie, because he didn't view Gillespie as a good musician. Once during a rehearsal, a member of the band threw a spitball. Already in a foul mood, Calloway decided to blame this on Gillespie. Dizzy didn't take the blame and the problem quickly escalated into a fist fight in which Dizzy stabbed Calloway in the leg with a knife. Calloway had minor cuts on the thigh and wrist. After the two men were separated, Calloway fired Gillespie. A few days later, Gillespie tried to apologize to Calloway, but he was dismissed.
During his time in Calloway's band, Gillespie started writing big band music for bandleaders like Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. He then freelanced with a few bands - most notably Ella Fitzgerald's orchestra, composed of members of the Chick Webb's band.
Gillespie did not serve in World War II. At his Selective Service interview, he told the local board, "in this stage of my life here in the United States whose foot has been in my ass?" He was thereafter classed as 4-F. In 1943, Gillespie joined the Earl Hines band. Composer Gunther Schuller said
... In 1943 I heard the great Earl Hines band which had Bird in it and all those other great musicians. They were playing all the flatted fifth chords and all the modern harmonies and substitutions and Gillespie runs in the trumpet section work. Two years later I read that that was 'bop' and the beginning of modern jazz ... but the band never made recordings.
Gillespie said of the Hines band, "[p]eople talk about the Hines band being 'the incubator of bop' and the leading exponents of that music ended up in the Hines band. But people also have the erroneous impression that the music was new. It was not. The music evolved from what went before. It was the same basic music. The difference was in how you got from here to here to here ... naturally each age has got its own shit".
Gillespie joined the big band of Hines' long-time collaborator Billy Eckstine, and it was as a member of Eckstine's band that he was reunited with Charlie Parker, a fellow member. In 1945, Gillespie left Eckstine's band because he wanted to play with a small combo. A "small combo" typically comprised no more than five musicians, playing the trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums.
Bebop was known as the first modern jazz style. However, it was unpopular in the beginning and was not viewed as positively as swing music was. Bebop was seen as an outgrowth of swing, not a revolution. Swing introduced a diversity of new musicians in the bebop era like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, and Gillespie. Through these musicians, a new vocabulary of musical phrases was created. With Parker, Gillespie jammed at famous jazz clubs like Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. Parker's system also held methods of adding chords to existing chord progressions and implying additional chords within the improvised lines.
Gillespie compositions like "Groovin' High", "Woody 'n' You" and "Salt Peanuts" sounded radically different, harmonically and rhythmically, from the swing music popular at the time. "A Night in Tunisia", written in 1942, while Gillespie was playing with Earl Hines' band, is noted for having a feature that is common in today's music: a syncopated bass line.  The song also displays Afro-Cuban rhythms. "Woody 'n' You" was recorded in a session led by Coleman Hawkins with Gillespie as a featured sideman on February 16, 1944 (Apollo 751), the first formal recording of bebop. Gillespie appeared in recordings by the Billy Eckstine band, and started recording prolifically as a leader and sideman in early 1945. Gillespie was not content to let bebop sit in a niche of small groups in small clubs. A concert by one of Gillespie's small groups in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945 presented bebop to a broad audience; recordings of it were finally released in 2005. He started to organize big bands in late 1945. "Dizzy Gillespie and his Rebop Six," including Parker, started an extended gig at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles in December 1945. Reception of the music at the engagement was decidedly mixed and the band broke up. In February 1946 Gillespie landed a recording date with the Bluebird label, gaining the distribution power of RCA for the new music. He and his big band headlined the 1946 independently produced musical revue film Jivin' in Be-Bop. After his work with Parker, Gillespie led other small combos (including ones with Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Lalo Schifrin, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, James Moody, J.J. Johnson, and Yusef Lateef) and put together his successful big bands starting in 1947. Gillespie and his big bands, with arrangements provided by Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, and George Russell, popularized bebop and made Gillespie a symbol of the new music. His big bands of the late 1940s also featured Cuban rumberos Chano Pozo and Sabu Martinez, sparking interest in Afro-Cuban jazz.
In 1948, Gillespie was involved in a traffic accident when the bicycle he was riding was bumped by an automobile. He was slightly injured, and found that he could no longer hit the B-flat above high C. He won the case, but the jury awarded him only $1000, in view of his high earnings up to that point.
On January 6, 1953, he threw a party for his wife Lorraine at Snookie's, a club in Manhattan, where his trumpet's bell got bent upward in an accident, but he liked the sound so much he had a special trumpet made with a 45 degree raised bell, becoming his trademark.
In 1956 Gillespie organized a band to go on a State Department tour of the Middle East which was extremely well received internationally and earned him the nickname "the Ambassador of Jazz". During this time, he also continued to lead a big band that performed throughout the United States and featured musicians including Pee Wee Moore and others. This band recorded a live album at the 1957 Newport jazz festival that featured Mary Lou Williams as a guest artist on piano.
In the late 1940s, Gillespie was also involved in the movement called Afro-Cuban music, bringing Afro-Latin American music and elements to greater prominence in jazz and even pop music, particularly salsa. Afro-Cuban jazz is based on traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms. 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 to its unique rhythms. Gillespie's most famous contributions to Afro-Cuban music are the compositions "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo" (both co-written with Chano Pozo); he was responsible for commissioning George Russell's "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop", which featured Pozo. In 1977, Gillespie discovered Arturo Sandoval while researching music during a tour of Cuba.
His biographer Alyn Shipton quotes Don Waterhouse approvingly that Gillespie in the fifties "had begun to mellow into an amalgam of his entire jazz experience to form the basis of new classicism". Another opinion is that, unlike his contemporary Miles Davis, Gillespie essentially remained true to the bebop style for the rest of his career.
In 1960, he was inducted into Down Beat magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame.
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 "for publicity, as a gag", but now proceeds from them went to benefit the Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr.; in later years they became a collector's item.
Dizzy Gillespie, a Bahá'í since 1968, was one of the most famous adherents of the Bahá'í Faith. It brought him to see himself as one of a series of musical messengers, part of a succession of trumpeters somewhat analogous to the series of prophets who bring God's message in religion. The universalist emphasis of his religion prodded him to see himself more as a global citizen and humanitarian, expanding on his already-growing interest in his African heritage. His increasing spirituality brought out a generosity in him, 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.
Gillespie published his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, in 1979.
In the 1980s, Gillespie led the United Nation Orchestra. For three years Flora Purim toured with the Orchestra and she credits Gillespie with evolving her understanding of jazz after being in the field for over two decades.David Sánchez also toured with the group and was also greatly influenced by Gillespie. Both artists later were nominated for Grammy awards. Gillespie also had a guest appearance on The Cosby Show as well as Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
In 1982, Gillespie had a cameo appearance on Stevie Wonder's hit "Do I Do". 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.
In 1988, Gillespie had worked with Canadian flautist and saxophonist Moe Koffman on their prestigious album Oo Pop a Da. He did fast scat vocals on the title track and a couple of the other tracks were played only on trumpet.
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 Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; France's most prestigious cultural award. He 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. In 1993 he received the Polar Music Prize in Sweden.
In December 1991, during an engagement at Kimball's East in Emeryville, CA, 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 over his medical problem, ending his 56 year touring career. Gillespie 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."
A longtime resident of Englewood, New Jersey he died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993, aged 75, and was buried in the Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York City. Mike Longo delivered a eulogy at his funeral. He was also with Gillespie on the night he died.
Gillespie was survived by his widow, Lorraine Willis Gillespie (died 2004); a daughter, jazz singer Jeanie Bryson (who was born from an affair with songwriter Connie Bryson); and a grandson, Radji Birks Bryson-Barrett. Gillespie had two funerals. One was a Bahá'í funeral at his request, at which his closest friends and colleagues attended. The second was at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City open to the public.
Dwight Morrow High School, the public high school of Englewood, New Jersey, renamed their auditorium the Dizzy Gillespie Auditorium, in memory of him.
He was honored on December 31, 2006 in A Jazz New Year's Eve: Freddy Cole & the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Gillespie has been described as the "Sound of Surprise".The Rough Guide to Jazz describes his musical style:
The whole essence of a Gillespie solo was cliff-hanging suspense: the phrases and the angle of the approach were perpetually varied, breakneck runs were followed by pauses, by huge interval leaps, by long, immensely high notes, by slurs and smears and bluesy phrases; he always took listeners by surprise, always shocking them with a new thought. His lightning reflexes and superb ear meant his instrumental execution matched his thoughts in its power and speed. And he was concerned at all times with swing--even taking the most daring liberties with pulse or beat, his phrases never failed to swing. Gillespie's magnificent sense of time and emotional intensity of his playing came from childhood roots. His parents were Methodists, but as a boy he used to sneak off every Sunday to the uninhibited Sanctified Church. He said later, "The Sanctified Church had deep significance for me musically. I first learned the significance of rhythm there and all about how music can transport people spiritually."
In Gillespie's obituary, Peter Watrous describes his performance style:
In the naturally effervescent Mr. Gillespie, opposites existed. His playing--and he performed constantly until nearly the end of his life--was meteoric, full of virtuosic invention and deadly serious. But with his endlessly funny asides, his huge variety of facial expressions and his natural comic gifts, he was as much a pure entertainer as an accomplished artist.
Wynton Marsalis summed up Gillespie as a player and teacher:
His playing showcases the importance of intelligence. His rhythmic sophistication was unequaled. He was a master of harmony--and fascinated with studying it. He took in all the music of his youth--from Roy Eldridge to Duke Ellington--and developed a unique style built on complex rhythm and harmony balanced by wit. Gillespie was so quick-minded, he could create an endless flow of ideas at unusually fast tempo. Nobody had ever even considered playing a trumpet that way, let alone had actually tried. All the musicians respected him because, in addition to outplaying everyone, he knew so much and was so generous with that knowledge...
Gillespie's trademark trumpet featured a bell which bent upward at a 45-degree angle rather than pointing straight ahead as in the conventional design. According to Gillespie's autobiography, this was originally the result of accidental damage caused by the dancers Stump and Stumpy falling onto the instrument while it was on a trumpet stand on stage at Snookie's in Manhattan on January 6, 1953, during a birthday party for Gillespie's wife Lorraine. The constriction caused by the bending altered the tone of the instrument, and Gillespie liked the effect. He had the trumpet straightened out the next day, but he could not forget the tone. Gillespie sent a request to Martin to make him a "bent" trumpet from a sketch produced by Lorraine, and from that time forward played a trumpet with an upturned bell.
Gillespie's biographer Alyn Shipton writes that Gillespie probably got the idea for a bent trumpet when he saw a similar instrument in 1937 in Manchester, England, while on tour with the Teddy Hill Orchestra.
Whatever the origins of Gillespie's upswept trumpet, by June 1954 he was using a professionally manufactured horn of this design, and it was to become a visual trademark for him for the rest of his life. Such trumpets were made for him by Martin (from 1954), King Musical Instruments (from 1972) and Renold Schilke (from 1982, a gift from Jon Faddis). Gillespie favored mouthpieces made by Al Cass. In December 1986 Gillespie gave the National Museum of American History his 1972 King "Silver Flair" trumpet with a Cass mouthpiece. In April 1995, Gillespie's Martin trumpet was auctioned at Christie's in New York City, along with instruments used by other famous musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. An image of Gillespie's trumpet was selected for the cover of the auction program. The battered instrument was sold to Manhattan builder Jeffery Brown for $63,000, the proceeds benefiting jazz musicians suffering from cancer.