Dizzy Gillespie |
The birth of Bebop

For any lover of jazz, Dizzy Gillespie’s pivotal role in the invention of be-bop and the composing of some of the best jazz standards of all time makes his name synonymous with the form.

Source: 20 July 1991 by Roland Godefroy, via Wikimedia Commons – Under Creative Commons license

Dizzy Gillespie was born in 1917 in the small town of Cheraw, South Carolina. The youngest of nine, he grew up in a uniquely musical household. His father was a bandleader who filled the house with instruments. At only four years old, the boy was playing piano.

His father died in 1927, but his influence did not die with him. The young Gillespie continued to play music, teaching himself the trombone and trumpet. He discovered jazz through the radio, listening to trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and soon he was committed to becoming a jazz player.

Gillespie won a music scholarship for the Laurinburg Institute preparatory school in North Carolina. He attended for two years, leaving in 1935 to move with his family to Philadelphia.

That move proved fateful.

The same year, he picked up his first professional gig playing with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra. This experience and exposure led to New York City, where he played in the orchestras of both Edgar Hayes and Teddy Hill. It was under Teddy Hill’s leadership that Gillespie made his first recording “King Porter Stomp,” and it was while touring with Hill’s band that he met his future wife.

In 1939, Gillespie joined Cab Calloway’s band. There, he wrote and recorded “Pickin’ the Cabbage,” demonstrating his talent as a composer and giving audiences the first hints of a Latin influence that would later emerge in his work. He was fired from the band after an altercation over a spitball wrongfully attributed to Dizzy, leading to Gillespie stabbing Calloway causing minor injuries.

The Invention of Bebop

In the years before World War II, Gillespie played with a head spinning number of jazz greats. From Ella Fitzgerald to Earl Hines. He wrote for Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman. But it was his playing with Charlie Parker that jazz historians have focused on the most. Together, Parker and Gillespie began experimenting with polyrhythms, dissonance, and driving tempo.

Bebop” as the new style would be called, brought a radical shift in jazz away from swing and toward a new frontier of experimentation. Gillespie and Parker worked out these experiments in “small combo” bands of five musicians. Gillespie kept writing, with his song “Woody n’ You” being the first recorded bebop track of all time.

As a composer, Gillespie began to bring in influences from Latin, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and Caribbean styles. His masterpiece “A Night in Tunisia” is perhaps the most notable accomplishments in this latin jazz genre.

Dizzy Gillespie’s Bent Trumpet

If you’ve read this far, we’re going to assume you know which jazz musician was known for playing a bent trumpet?

Many of the most iconic images of Dizzy Gillespie show him playing his trademark trumpet, with the bell bent upwards at a 45 degree angle. He didn’t acquire this until 1953, though, when a guest at a party for his wife accidentally sat on his trumpet, bending the bell upward.

Dizzy discovered that he preferred the sound after the accident and so had bespoke trumpets made from there on out with the distinctive style.

The trumpet was acquired by the Smithsonian Institute in 1985, as explained by music curator John Edward Hasse who wrote a letter to Gillespie’s wife proposing the idea. “Four days after sending the letter, this great big box arrives at the museum by UPS! In it is his trumpet and a specially built trumpet case to accommodate this unusual shape, with travel stickers from France and various parts of the world. I could hardly believe it.

The Legend Continues

Dizzy became a celebrity figure for his unique look and crooked trumpet, not to mention his unparalleled playing and creative output.

He ran as a write-in candidate for president in 1964 on a platform of renaming the White House to the Blues House and nominating a retinue of jazz greats to cabinet positions with Malcom X as the Attorney General.

Proceeds from sales of his campaign pins went to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Congress for Racial Equality. He also converted to the Baháʼí Faith, becoming a notable figure in the small religion.

He continued to play and record through the century, even leading the United Nations Orchestra during the eighties.

It was in 1991 that his long career of live performances ended when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In early 1992, he made his final recording. Nearly one year later, in January of 1993, he died.

The jazz world owes an incredible debt to the genius of Dizzy Gillespie. The music he left behind with us is some of the best to ever be carved into wax. And so it seems that the dream of a boy growing up in South Carolina listening to swing on the radio really did come true.