Gillespie, Dizzy [John Birks] (Cheraw, SC, 21 Oct 1917 - Englewood, NJ, 6 Jan 1993)


Trumpeter, composer, and bandleader


He was one of the principal developers of bop in the early 1940s, and his styles of improvising and trumpet playing were imitated widely in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, he is one of the most influential players in the history of jazz.



Gillespie was the youngest of nine children. His father, a bricklayer and weekend bandleader, died when he was ten; two years later he began to teach himself to play trombone and trumpet, and later took up cornet. His musical ability enabled him to attend Laurinburg Institute, North Carolina, in 1932, for the school needed a trumpet player for its band. During his years there he practiced the trumpet and piano intensively, still largely without formal guidance.


In 1935 he left school to join his family, who had moved to Philadelphia. Soon he joined a band led by Frankie Fairfax, which also included Charlie Shavers. Shavers knew many of the trumpet solos of Roy Eldridge, and Gillespie learned them by copying Shavers (he had previously known only a handful of phrases by Eldridge, the man who became his early role model). While he was in Fairfax's band Gillespie's clownish behavior earned him the nickname he has carried ever since.


Gillespie left Philadelphia in 1937 and moved to New York to try and become better known as a jazz player. After sitting in with many different bands and at many jam sessions he earned a job with Teddy Hill's big band, largely because he sounded much like Eldridge, who had been Hill's trumpet soloist. The band toured France and Great Britain for two months shortly after Gillespie joined. On returning to New York he again worked in several groups, including Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans and the Afro-Cuban band of Alberto Socarras, before returning to Hill's band. In 1939 he joined Cab Calloway's big band, one of the highest-paid black bands in New York at the time. While in this group he began to develop an interest in the fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, largely because of his friendship with Mario Bauzá, who was also in Calloway's band. During the same period he was beginning to diverge from Eldridge's playing style both formally, in his solos with the band - such as Pickin' the Cabbage (1940) - and in an informal context, with the group's double bass player Milt Hinton.


While on tour in 1940 Gillespie met Charlie Parker in Kansas City. Soon he began participating in after-hours jam sessions in New York with Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and others. This group of young, experimenting players gradually developed the new, more complex style of jazz that was to be called bop. Recordings, such as Kerouac (1941), made at Minton's Playhouse, exemplify this emergent style.


A dispute with Calloway led to Gillespie's dismissal in 1941. He then worked briefly with many leaders, including Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Les Hite, Lucky Millinder, Earl Hines (whose band also included Parker), and Duke Ellington. With Millinder he recorded a fully formed bop solo within a swing-band context on Little John Special (1942). After his solo, the band plays a riff which he developed into the composition Salt Peanuts. During the winter of 1943-4 Gillespie led a small group with Oscar Pettiford. In 1944 Billy Eckstine, singer with the Hines band, formed a bop band of his own and engaged Gillespie to play and to be music director. At about the same time Gillespie made some of the first small-group bop recordings, some with Hawkins's band, and others, including Salt Peanuts and Hot House, under his own name with Parker.


Early in 1945 Gillespie organized his own short-lived big band. Failing to achieve financial success with this group, he then formed a bop quintet with Parker in November. He later expanded the group to a sextet, but his desire to lead a big band inspired him to try once more, and this time he was able to keep its members together for four years. During this period the band made some early attempts to fuse Afro-Cuban rhythms with Afro-American jazz (see Afro-cuban jazz). Gillespie added Chano Pozo to the rhythm section, and the two men recorded Cubana Be/Cubana Bop (written by George Russell) and Manteca (by Gillespie and Pozo). By 1947 the band's rhythm section consisted of John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke, and Ray Brown, who went on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet. At various times such prominent bop players as J. J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Paul Gonsalves, and John Coltrane were also members of Gillespie's band. Financial pressures forced Gillespie to give up the big band in 1950. A short engagement as featured soloist with Stan Kenton's big band followed, and then he organized a sextet. In 1951 he formed his own record company, Dee Gee; it, too, was financially unrewarding and short-lived.


Early in 1953 someone accidentally fell on Gillespie's trumpet, which was sitting upright on a trumpet stand, and bent the bell back. Gillespie played it, discovered that he liked the sound, and ever since has had trumpets built for him with the bell pointing upwards at a 45° angle. The design is his visual trademark: even after more than three decades he is virtually the only major trumpeter in jazz playing such an instrument.


In 1956, after several years leading small groups, Gillespie formed another big band specifically to tour Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia on a cultural mission for the US State Department, and a few months later another sponsored tour, to South America, took place. He kept the band together for two years, but without government funding he was unable to keep such a large ensemble operational, and he returned to leading small groups.


Gillespie has continued to perform and record extensively with his various small groups into the late 1980s. In addition he appears occasionally in all-star groups such as the Giants of Jazz (1971-2), a sextet with Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, Al McKibbon, and Art Blakey, and he is a regular performer on Caribbean cruise ships that feature jazz artists. Although he was once viewed as a musical iconoclast, his music is no longer considered radical. He is viewed rather as an elder statesman of jazz, and his outgoing personality and impish sense of humor have endeared him to the general public through appearances on television.


Musical style


Gillespie's first recorded solos, especially that on King Porter Stomp, sound much like those of Roy Eldridge; he largely imitated the phrasing, tone quality, vibrato, and melodic ideas of his idol. But little by little his style changed during the years 1939 to 1944: he began using a lighter vibrato; his phrasing contained both swing eighth-notes and even eighth-notes instead of being dominated by the former; his melodies became more chromatic (sometimes self-consciously so), especially in his extensive use of the lowered second degree of the scale (used more sparingly by his swing-era elders Eldridge and Hawkins); and early versions of some of his characteristic melodic formulas began to appear. By the middle 1940s his mature style was fully formed.


Gillespie's is a dramatic style, filled with startling contrasts. Simple, almost folklike phrases may suddenly give way to long, complex phrases filled with fast notes. Similarly, soft, mid-register phrases may suddenly give way to high notes played fortissimo. And the drama is visual as well as aural, for he allows his cheeks to fill with air when he plays; over the years his cheek muscles have stretched, and the increase in the size of his face when he plays is striking. His tone is less full and rich than that of some of his predecessors and many of his followers, and sometimes he seems little concerned about accurate intonation. But his fertile melodic and rhythmic imagination, his technical facility, and his tireless dedication to bop have earned him a place among the great figures of jazz history.


Although his fame and his importance to jazz rest primarily on his trumpet playing, Gillespie has written a number of significant jazz compositions. During the 1940s and 1950s he wrote and collaborated with others on a variety of well-known pieces: the chromatic Woody 'n' You (filled with half-diminished seventh chords, one of his favorite harmonic sonorities); the simple, humorous, and riff-like Salt Peanuts (based on I got rhythm); the frantically fast Bebop; the Latin-tinged A Night in Tunisia and Manteca; the melodically complex Groovin' High (based on Whispering) and Anthropology (based on I got rhythm and written in collaboration with Charlie Parker); the harmonically ingenious Con Alma; and the basic blues theme Birks Works.




Oral history material in The State University of New Jersey Library, Rutgers, Newark, NJ, USA.





See also Jazz, Harmonic and rhythmic experiments, Further developments in the musical language, and The commercial growth of bop; and Trumpet, Technical aspects and Bop and traditional jazz.


 Thomas Owens


The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, © Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988