Between big bands, Gillespie led small ensembles or performed with all-star aggregations such as Jazz at the Philharmonic. As a bandleader, he was among the first to introduce Latin musical elements into modern jazz.

Musician. Dizzy Gillespie was born in Cheraw on October 21, 1917, the son of James Penfield Gillespie, a bricklayer and amateur musician, and Lottie Powe. He began instruction on trumpet and trombone at age twelve and by fifteen was proficient enough to sit in with visiting professional bands. In 1933 he entered the nearby Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he played in the school band. He left two years later without receiving his high school diploma to join his mother in Philadelphia, where she had recently moved.

Leaving Philadelphia for New York in 1937, Gillespie played with sundry groups for two years before joining the popular Cab Calloway Orchestra. Playing with Calloway, he began to display the first elements of a personal style. In his off-hours, Gillespie participated in jam sessions with such forward-looking young players as saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk. Their informal experimentation with advanced harmonies and complex rhythms eventually led to the first modern jazz style, called bebop (or bop), which remains in the twenty-first century the foundation of most jazz performance.

Leaving Calloway in 1941, Gillespie spent short periods with a number of ensembles and began to supply arrangements for the orchestras of Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. While a member of the Benny Carter band, he wrote his famous “A Night in Tunisia.” By 1945 he had played with numerous large and small groups, including those of Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, and John Kirby, and led or co-led small bands of his own.

In 1945 Gillespie and Charlie Parker formed a quintet to perform in the new style at a New York club. Later that year, they participated in some of the first small-group bebop recordings. Those recordings led to Gillespie’s reputation as one of the most virtuosic, individualistic, and influential trumpeters in the history of jazz.

A devotee of big bands, Gillespie formed several during his career only to return to the small band format when they failed financially. In 1956 the U.S. Department of State sponsored a big band tour of the Middle East and parts of Europe, followed by a similar state department sponsored trip to South America. Between big bands, Gillespie led small ensembles or performed with all-star aggregations such as Jazz at the Philharmonic. As a bandleader, he was among the first to introduce Latin musical elements into modern jazz.

Gillespie performed prolifically throughout the world and received numerous honors. He played for the South Carolina legislature in 1976 and two years later sang a duet with President Jimmy Carter at the White House Jazz Festival. In 1989 President George Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts. He was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1985. The African American Monument installed on the State House grounds in 2001 contains his likeness. Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993.

DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Gillespie, Dizzy, with Al Fraser. To Be, Or Not . . . To Bop: Memoirs. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.

Owens, Thomas. Bebop: The Music and Its Players. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Shipton, Alyn. Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Gillespie, John Birks "Dizzy"
  • Author David Franklin
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/gillespie-john-birks/
  • Access Date July 21, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date May 17, 2016
  • Date of Last Update August 10, 2016