Dizzy Gillespie

Born: October 21, 1917. Cheraw, South Carolina
Died: January 6, 1993. Englewood, New Jersey

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American jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. With Charlie Parker, a pioneer in the bebop style.

The first things that people noticed about Dizzy Gillespie were the way his cheeks popped out when he played and the strange trumpet he had, with its bell pointing up at an angle. The first was just a quirk of his playing, and the second happened by accident when somebody sat on his horn. But what you noticed after that was that he could play—fast and hard, high and loud, soft and lyrical, always on the edge of something new. He was simply one of the finest jazz players ever, and his music, like Charlie Parker's, continues to serve as a model for succeeding generations of jazz musicians.

Gillespie's father was a bricklayer who led a band on the weekends. Because of this, the young Gillespie had the chance to try a number of instruments and taught himself to play trombone and trumpet. His abilities allowed him to attend the Laurinburg Institute, an African American boarding school in North Carolina, but in 1935 he left school to move with his family to Philadelphia. Here he started playing with local bands, and his antics on stage earned him his nickname, "Dizzy." Through his friendship with trumpeter Charlie Shavers he learned many of the solos of Roy Eldridge, which stood him in good stead when he went to New York in 1937 to play in Teddy Hill's band, in which Eldridge had previously played. In New York he played with a succession of bands and became interested in Afro-Cuban styles through his friendship with Cuban-born Mario Bauzá. In the 1940s he also began to develop his own style in jam sessions with musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. These sessions were the birthplace of the bebop style. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s he had a succession of small groups (mostly quintets) and his own big band. While the band was never a financial success, it allowed him to continue his exploration of the Afro-Cuban style and served as a home for players such as Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, James Moody, Sonny Stitt, and John Coltrane. 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" (he even ran for president in 1964 on an antiwar and civil rights platform).

Over the rest of his life, Gillespie continued to play with the leading musicians of the day and to serve as a mentor to younger generations. His contributions to jazz cannot be overestimated. The development of the bop style was a major event in the history of jazz—Gillespie was central to bop's development—and his incredible technique and genius as a soloist helped set new standards for following generations. Many of his compositions, such as "Night in Tunisia," "Salt Peanuts," "Manteca," and "Groovin' High," not only have become jazz standards but also almost single-handedly changed the harmonic and melodic language of jazz.

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Musical Examples

Excerpt from A Night in Tunisia
Listening Guide [pdf file - 379 KB]
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