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
In 1935 he left school to join his family, who had moved to
While on tour in 1940 Gillespie met Charlie Parker in
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
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
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
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,
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.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, © Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988