Dizzy Gillespie Day

October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993

A tribute to the remarkable trumpeter

Trumpeter, bandleader and composer John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina.

The last of nine children in a poor family, Gillespie originally played trombone, switching to trumpet when he was 12.

He won a scholarship to an agriculture school (the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina) where he had an opportunity to study music, but he dropped out in 1935 to try to make it as a musician.

Inspired by the playing of Roy Eldridge, Gillespie worked with Frankie Fairfax’s orchestra in Philadelphia, was in Eldridge’s old spot with Teddy Hill’s big band in 1937 (where he made his recording debut), and was a member of the Cab Calloway Orchestra during 1939-41.

While with Calloway, Dizzy was regularly experimenting during his solos which led to some eerie harmonies that Calloway called “Chinese music,” improvising over more complex chords than the rhythm section was playing.

During 1941-42, Gillespie (who met his musical soulmate Charlie Parker in 1940) spent brief periods with many Swing era big bands including those of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Fess Williams, Les Hite, Claude Hopkins, Lucky Millinder, and Calvin Jackson, subbing with Duke Ellington for four weeks.

After working out his ideas at late night jam sessions at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse, and contributing advanced arrangements to the big bands of Woody Herman, Benny Carter and Jimmy Dorsey, Gillespie and Parker (known as Bird and Diz) introduced their new bebop music as members of the Earl Hines Big Band in 1943 (unfortunately that group did not record) and the Billy Eckstine Orchestra of 1944.

1945 is when Dizzy Gillespie became famous and bebop exploded in the jazz world with Diz & Bird recording such classic bop tunes as “Hot House,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “’Shaw Nuff” and “Groovin’ High.”

Gillespie led a short-lived big band in 1945 and had more success with his 1946-49 orchestra.

In addition to his very complex solos (he had the ability to play notes that seemed wrong, hold on to them, and somehow make them fit), Gillespie was an important pioneer in Latin or Afro-Cuban jazz, composing “Manteca” and utilizing Chano Pozo on congas with his big band.

After the break-up of his orchestra, the always-colorful trumpeter made some of his most exciting small-group recordings in the 1950s, spreading the gospel of bebop worldwide, and gradually making the transition from revolutionary to beloved elder statesman.

Highlights of his later years included the 1953 Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker, his globetrotting big band of 1956-57, classic small groups with such sidemen as James Moody, Lalo Schifrin and Kenny Barron, tours with the Giants Of Jazz (a sextet with Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk) during 1971-72, and his final big band, the United Nation Orchestra of 1988-92.

This film clip features Dizzy Gillespie during a visit to Cuba in 1982, playing an extended version of “A Night In Tunisia” (his most famous composition) with his quintet and guest trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

-Scott Yanow


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