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Gillespie, Dizzy

byname of John Birks Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie, 1955.

(born Oct. 21, 1917, Cheraw, S.C., U.S.—died Jan. 6, 1993, Englewood, N.J.) American trumpeter, composer, and bandleader who was a founder of the modern jazz style known as bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie (right) and Charlie Parker (left) in 1952, performing Tadd Dameron's “Hot …
Copyright Archive Films

Gillespie received early instrumental training from his father and instruction in theory at Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. He composed, arranged, and soloed with the Teddy Hill and Cab Calloway bands in the late 1930s and with the Benny Carter and Earl Hines bands, among others, in the early 1940s. He took an active part in the jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where such musicians as pianist Thelonius Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke, and saxophonist Charlie Parker were experimenting with a new style of jazz composed of numerous altered chord progressions and rapid syncopated rhythms. Gillespie became co-leader of a group on 52nd Street with bassist Oscar Pettiford, which marked the birth of the bebop era. When Gillespie and Parker joined Billy Eckstine's band in 1944, it became the first big band to showcase the new style. (See Gillespie and Parker, “Hot House.”)

Gillespie took the saxophone-style lines of advanced swing-era trumpeter Roy Eldridge and executed them faster, with greater ease, and with further harmonic daring. He played his jagged melodies with abandon, reaching into the highest registers of the trumpet range and improvising into precarious situations from which he seemed always to extricate himself. He thought much like a drummer and was partly responsible for the assimilation of Afro-Cuban elements into modern jazz. Gillespie helped popularize the interval of the augmented eleventh (flat fifth) as a characteristic sound in modern jazz.

Gillespie influenced many modern jazz trumpeters, including such leading figures as Miles Davis, Thad Jones, and Kenny Dorham. His improvised lines with their abrupt changes in direction were incorporated into the improvisations of pianists, saxophonists, guitarists, bassists, and vibraphonists. Though associated mostly with small combos, especially those he co-led with Parker, Gillespie led and wrote for his own swing-era-sized big bands throughout the late 1940s and sporadically during the '50s, launching such outstanding saxophone soloists as John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Dexter Gordon, and James Moody.

The Gillespie compositions “Night in Tunisia,” “Manteca,” “Con Alma,” and “Birks Works” became jazz standards. His bent trumpet (originally the result of its being sat on) and his onstage clowning became personal trademarks. His memoirs, To Be or Not To Bop, were published in 1979.

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