Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gillespie, Dizzy (John Birks)

Dizzy Gillespie always broke new ground. His collaborations with Charlie Parker in the forties set the benchmark by which modern jazz has been measured. But he didn’t stop there: over the next forty years, he traveled around the world to find new inspirations, mentor young talent, and led a spiritually rich and jovial lifestyle that made him a true ambassador for his music.

Born in Cheraw, South Carolina, on October 21, 1917, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was the youngest of the nine children born to James and Lottie (Powe) Gillespie. John Birks, as he was known in his early years, never forgot the musical roots of the Cheraw community, including both the United Methodist and Sanctified church services he attended near his home. He often praised Alice Wilson, his music teacher at Cheraw’s segregated grammar school, for starting his formal education in music at age twelve.

After James died in an asthma attack, John Birks won a scholarship to attend the Laurinburg Institute, a boarding school for African American children founded in 1904 by Emmanuel and Tinny McDuffie, disciples of Booker T. Washington. The McDuffies encouraged the boy’s interest in music, so much so that he set off on his career as a musician before earning his diploma.

In June of 1935, Gillespie relocated to Philadelphia, where he rejoined his mother and siblings, who had moved there during his eighteen months at Laurinburg. In Philly, he began to work with the band of Frankie Fairfax. In 1937, he moved to New York and replaced his avowed idol, Roy Eldridge, in the band led by pianist Teddy Hill. In 1939, Gillespie joined Cab Calloway’s band, which at that time included saxophonist Chu Berry, drummer Cozy Cole, trombonist Tyree Glenn, bassist Milt Hilton and trumpeter Mario Bauzá.

Gillespie found a kindred spirit in the Cuban-born Bauzá, and it was he who helped Dizzy get the gig in Calloway’s band, feigning sickness one night and lending Dizzy his band uniform, without Calloway’s permission, so the younger man could play his parts on the bandstand.

During their time as section mates, Bauzá and Gillespie formed a strong bond and spent many hours discussing the relationships between Afro-Cuban music and North American jazz. When Calloway gave Gillespie the opportunity to write and arrange for the band, he incorporated some of what he had learned from Bauzá.

The first recorded evidence of this collaboration is “Pickin’ the Cabbage” from August, 1939. Calloway’s band already performed some watered-down versions of Bauzá’s compositions, but Gillespie’s contribution was his ability to synthesize elements of from both jazz and Latin genres through the use of his arranging talents.

In May of 1940, Gillespie married a widowed chorus girl, Lorraine, who became his wife of the next fifty-three years, and provided much of the material and moral stability that sustained his long career.

Gillespie however had a wild temper, and in September of 1941 Calloway fired him after he stabbed the bandleader in the buttocks during an onstage argument. Gillespie then freelanced around New York, contributing performances and arrangements to many bands, including those of Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines.

In January 1943, Gillespie and Parker toured together for the first time in Hines’s band. Diz and Bird first met in Kansas City in June of 1940, and had jammed together at Harlem after-hours clubs, including Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, but it was in the Hines band that they joined the pieces of the musical puzzle that each had been working on separately.

Gillespie and Parker returned to New York and formed a quintet with pianist Al Haig, bassist Curley Russell, and drummers that included Sid Catlett, Stan Levey, and Max Roach. The group’s early performances in 1945 electrified audiences. A recording that best captures the spirit of the bebop movement as incarnated by Gillespie and Parker is the recently rediscovered album, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945. The entire program is exemplary, and you can hear the revolutionary atmosphere in the air—especially noteworthy are “Bebop” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

This new style of jazz eschewed danceable rhythms for lightning-fast tempos and around-the-block improvisations, and elicited strong responses from audiences and critics. Gillespie’s signature beret and goatee were adopted by adoring “hipsters” across the country. Narcotic drugs and alcoholism were also associated with bebop, due in part to the addictions that ultimately claimed the lives of many gifted musicians. It was Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction that eventually broke up the ensemble, and Gillespie transitioned to a big band format that offered a broader canvas for his ideas.

Gillespie’s 1946 big band featured some of the era’s greatest jazz performers: Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Dorham, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Stitt. The band was a resounding success both live and on wax, even if Gillespie’s onstage antics sometimes incurred the disdain of “serious” listeners and critics, who protested his tireless antics as an entertainer demeaned the intellectual qualities of the music.

Never in question, though, were the talents of Dizzy’s ensemble, even on the more playful, humorous compositions, like “You Stole My Wife, You Horsethief.” The band’s recording of “Lover, Come Back to Me” epitomizes the adventurous virtuosity of the Gillespie Big Band, showcasing the leader’s performance and arranging skills in a band that redefined the repertoire of all large ensembles to come.

In 1947, Gillespie sought Bauzá’s advice to find a Cuban percussionist to add to his big band. Bauzá recommended conga player Chano Pozo, who collaborated with Gillespie and on a series of recordings that are among the earliest true examples of Latin jazz.

“Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” was written by George Russell to showcase Pozo’s skills, at and was premiered at Carnegie Hall in September of 1947. The band’s unprecedented synthesis of Latin music and jazz is captured in this piece and in “Manteca,” recorded in December of that year. This band also toured Europe, indelibly linking the sounds of bebop Afro-Cuban rhythms in the ears of European audiences.

Dizzy suffered a major loss when Pozo was killed in a Harlem drug dispute in December of 1948. However, he frequently spoke of their eighteen months of collaboration a time of musical epiphany, and he continued to perform their compositions and his own exploration of latin rhythms for the next forty years.

Throughout the 1950s, Gillespie enjoyed a partnership with record producer Norman Granz. In 1954, Granz arranged a recording session for Gillespie and his idol, Roy Eldridge, which also featured the Oscar Peterson trio. The friendly competition between the two trumpeters energized the album, as the tracks “Trumpet Blues” and “I’ve Found a New Baby” demonstrate. Gillespie also frequently participated in Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. This sustained international success led to an invitation from the United States government for federally subsidizes tours abroad.

In 1956, Gillespie accepted an invitation from New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to form a racially iintegrated band to serve as cultural ambassadors for the United States. The group, which many musicians consider to be the best of Dizzy’s large ensembles, traveled extensively in South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Music from the South American tour is captured on a recent three-CD set issued by Consolidated Artists.

Wherever he traveled, Dizzy took multicultural approach to jazz, always playing with local musicans and incorporating local music into his repertoire. These influences can be seen in albums such as A Musical Safari, Bahiana, and Jambo Caribe.

Dizzy enjoyed success in the public sphere, but his private life was not without turmoil. At times he drank to excess, had extramarital affairs, and in 1958 he fathered a daughter, Jeanie Bryson, out of wedlock. He concealed Bryson’s identity from Lorraine for many years, but ultimately acknowledged Jeanie as his only child.

By the 1960s, Dizzy’s career came to a crossroads, when his beloved big band became commercially unviable. He switched back to smaller groups, but even their modest success was dwarfed by the popular sales of rock and roll records.

Aside from touring with a small group, one of Gillespie’s most productive partnerships in this period was with Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin wrote a suite in Dizzy’s honor, Gillespiana, which the two recorded together at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Another key collaborator was pianist Mike Longo, who served for many years as the musical director of Dizzy’s small groups.

Dizzy’s punishing pace of appearances at clubs and festivals, coupled with racial strife in the United States, made the 1960s a particularly difficult time for Gillespie. In 1968, he found a degree of solace when he converted to the Baha’i faith. The teachings of the Baha’is, follow the precepts of racial unity and peace taught by nineteenth-century Persian prophets, inspired him to give up alcohol and pursue a more spiritually guided approach to his music and his life.

An opportunity for renewed musical success came from his long-time associate Norman Granz. Disturbed by the lack of investment in older musicians, Granz established Pablo Records in 1975. He sought to record musicians he considered legendary, yet underappreciated, such as Gillespie. Long time collaborators, Gillespie made several standout recordings for Granz including Dizzy’s Big 4 and Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. Caravan, recorded on the latter album is an iconic performance, capturing both musicians at the height of their mastery.

In 1977, Gillespie organized a jazz cruise to Cuba, breaking the United States’ seventeen-year ban on travel to the island where he performed with local musicians, including saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who would both later emigrate to the U.S. and become his close collaborators in his later years.

As the 1980s progressed, Gillespie embraced his role as a veteran musician, focusing on education and inviting younger musicians to join him on stage. Trumpeters Jon Faddis, Sandoval, D’Rivera, pianist Danilo Perez and trombonist Steve Turre number amuong the many recipients of Gillespie’s guidance and support. Gillespie’s 1985 GRP recording, New Faces, features solid performances by Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and Lonnie Plaxico.

In 1988, Gillespie created his last big band, named “The United Nation Orchestra” in honor of the Baha’i belief in the unity of mankind. Under musical directors D’Rivera and trombonist Slide Hampton, the group brought together many of the best jazz musicians from United States and Latin America. In 1989 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Gillespie directed the ensemble in a famous concert that culminated in an epic rendition of Night in Tunisia. This group celebrated the multicultural ideal that suffused Gillespie’s music throughout his career.

In celebration of his 75th birthday, Gillespie held court at the Blue Note in New York for one month. From these dates, several albums resulted, including To Bird with Love. Gillespie’s storied virtuosity had faded; however, as on Billie’s Bounce, he exhibits a nuanced and subtle approach to performance attainable only through a lifetime of experience. In this context, his generosity in sharing the stage with his band mates suggests deference to the next generation of musicians.

Shortly after these concerts, on January 6, 1993, Gillespie passed away from pancreatic cancer. In accordance with his final wishes, Gillespie was given a private funeral in the Baha’i tradition, as well as a public service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, both in New York City. Gillespie is buried at the Flushing Cemetary in Queens, New York.

Selected Bibliography

Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. 1979. To Be or Not to Bop. New York: Doubleday.

Gourse, Leslie. 1994. Dizzy Gillespie and the Birth of Bebop. New York: Maxwell Macmillan.

Lees, Gene. 2001. You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Maggin, Donald. 2005. Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie. New York: Harper Collins.

Shipton, Alyn. 2001. Groovin’ High: The Life and Times of Dizzy Gillespie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vail, Ken. 2003. Dizzy Gillespie: The Bebop Years 1937-1952. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Yanow, Scott. 2001. Trumpet Kings: The Players Who Shaped the Sound of Jazz Trumpet. San Francisco: Backbeat Books.

Selected Discography

Afro. Verve MG N-1003, [1954] 2002.

Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods. Pablo 447-2, [1975] 1990.

At Newport. Verve 952402, [1957] 2007.

Bahiana. Pablo 2625708, [1975] 1996.

The Complete RCA Victor Recordings: 1937-1949. Bluebird/RCA 66528, 1995.

Development of an American Artist: 1940-1946. Smithsonian R004.

Dizzy Digs Paris. Giant Steps 016, 2006.

Dizzy in South America: Official U.S. State Department Tour, 1956, vols. 1-3. CAP.

Dizzy’s Big 4. Pablo 204432, [1974] 2000.

An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet. Verve 8401, [1961] 1996.

The Giants of Jazz. Collectables 7730, [1972] 2006.

Gillespiana/Carnegie Hall Concert. Verve 31451980, [1960] 1993.

Jambo Caribe. Verve 557492, [1964] 1998.

Jazz in Paris: The Giant. Emarcy 9843468, [1973] 2007.

Live at the Village Vanguard. Blue Note 80507, [1967] 1993.

Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1989. Enja 79658, [1989] 1991.

Max + Dizzy, Paris, 1989. A&M 6404, 1989.

New Faces. GRP 1012, 1985.

Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. Pablo 2310-740, [1975] 1991.

Pleyel Jazz Concert 1948. BMG International 40941, [1948] 1998.

Roy and Diz. Verve 521647, [1954] 1994.

Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac. Impulse 11782, [1967] 1996.

To Bird with Love. Telarc 83316, 1992.

To a Finland Station. Fantasy/OJC 733, [1982] 1992.

Town Hall, New York City, June 24, 1945. Uptown 2751, 2005.

The Trumpet Summit Meets the Oscar Peterson Big Four. Pablo 60852, [1980] 2002.

The Verve/Philips Dizzy Gillespie Small Group Sessions. Verve 1700973, 2006.

Contributor: Mark Lomanno


Related Links

The Dozens: Twelve Classic Dizzy Gillespie Performances by Mark Lomanno