Dizzy Gillespie

Biography

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The youngest of nine children whose father was a brickmason (and amateur musician), John Birks Gillespie was born in the backwoods town of Cheraw, South Carolina, on October 21, 1917. He was a bright student and completed his schooling via a scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute, thirty miles away, where he received his first serious tuition on the trumpet. During his eighteenth year he moved with his widowed mother to Philadelphia, and he soon became involved in the busy local music scene, as well as earning the nickname Dizzy through his wild and irreverent antics.

Encouraged by his fellow trumpeter Charlie Shavers to come to New York in 1937, he landed a job with the Teddy Hill band. During the next few years, while holding down jobs with numerous bands, including those of Benny Carter and Earl Hines, Gillespie perfected a totally new approach to trumpet improvisation. He acquired an enviable facility, especially in the previously forbidding upper register, and constantly used uneven phrase lengths and unusual note choices. The period with Hines was particularly significant because it represented the first continuous period in which Gillespie played every day alongside his contemporary Charlie Parker, whose innovations on alto saxophone paralleled Gillespie’s own developments. Together they were responsible for bringing to fruition the style known as bebop — a name inspired by the abrupt two-note phrasing heard, for instance, in the melody of "Groovin’ High."

Gillespie was sufficiently well known by the winter of 1943–44 to take his own group into one of the clubs on New York’s Fifty-second Street. When Parker returned to New York a year later, the two made many appearances and a series of records together that are still viewed as classics. The economics of the band business, however, dictated that for most of his career from 1950 onwards Gillespie led quintets or sextets, or touring in all-star formats like Jazz at the Philharmonic. Fortunately, he was also often involved in star-studded groups convened for the sole purpose of a studio session, including the 1950 reunion with Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk (the only time the three recorded together) or the 1957 date with saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins.

Twice, however, Gillespie defied economic constraints and assembled new big bands. The first, active from 1956 to 1958, was put together so Gillespie could act as a musical ambassador in the Middle East and South America. In the last years of life (he died in 1993) he formed a semi-regular big band called the United Nation Orchestra, whose personnel included several of his younger protégés.

 

Brian Priestley

May 2000

Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Dizzy Gillespie