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John Birks (1917-1993) Trumpeter, composer, and bandleader
Dizzy Gillespie 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.
Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
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 in North Carolina in 1932 because 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.
NPR Jazz Feature: Billy Taylor on Dizzy Gillespie
Dr. Billy Taylor, host of NPR's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, relates in word and song how Dizzy Gillespie added Latin rhythms into his music.
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.
The NPR 100: "A Night in Tunisia"
Margot Stage reports that this Dizzy Gillespie classic marked the arrival of Afro-Cuban rhythms in American jazz. The song is a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical recordings of the 20th Century.
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 Bauzi, 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
in Kansa City. Soon he began participating in after-hours jam session in New York with Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and others. This group of
young, experimenting players gradual 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, Le Hite, Lucky Millinder, Earl Hines (whose band also included Parker), and Duke Ellington. With Millinder, he recorded a full, 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, the singer with the Hines band, formed a big band of his own and engaged Gillespie to play and to be the 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.
Stanley Crouch, writer
On how Dizzy Gillespie should be remembered
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)
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. Gillespie added Chano Pozo to
the rhythm section, and the two men recorded Cubana Bel/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 from that point on had trumpets built for him with the bell pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle. The design is his visual trademark for more than three decades he was 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 continued to perform and record extensively with his various small groups
into the late 1980s. In addition, he appeared 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. Also, he was a regular performer on Caribbean cruise ships that featured 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 endeared him to the general public through appearances on television.
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