The Clown Prince of Bebop

The great jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, vocalist, and arranger Dizzy Gillespie was, with Charlie Parker, a founder of bebop. He enjoyed a 60-year career that cut a huge swath through jazz and changed it forever.

Dizzy is instantly recognizable for his proto-beatnik style: moustache and soul patch, beret, horn-rimmed glasses (yes cats, those beatniks were copying Dizzy). Then there were his characteristic onstage mannerisms: clowning around, cheeks that ballooned out alarmingly when he played, and bent trumpet (originally the result of being sat on in 1953, thereafter a trademark). But don't let his goofy mannerisms lead you to believe he was a second-rate musician; on the contrary, Dizzy was a musical genius with great natural ability and astonishing inventiveness. He played fast and easily, executing jagged harmonic melodies which reached sudden searing high notes, improvising wildly and with great daring. He had an excellent sense of rhythm - some say he thought like a drummer, though he says he played like a piano player - and was much taken with Afro-Cuban stylings, which he helped integrate into modern jazz. And he was a generous teacher, sharing his knowledge with generations of younger musicians with no thought for competition or secrecy.

Dizzy was born John Birks Gillespie, youngest of nine children, in South Carolina in 1917. His father was a bricklayer who also had a band, so young Gillespie grew up with music. When the father died in 1927 the son wasn't much interested in music, but he soon showed some talent and won a scholarship to attend the North Carolina Negro Industrial School (today the Laurinburg Institute) to study music theory and harmony. He started out playing trombone but as a teenager took up the horn with which he is most closely associated, the trumpet, although he apparently never had formal lessons in either instrument.

In 1935 Gillespie, aged 18, and his family moved to Philadelphia, and he began to play professionally as a sideman in big bands. Here he gained the nickname "Dizzy" for his crazy onstage antics, which included shimmying around in a style of dancing he called "snake hips".

He was also listening to NBC radio broadcasts from Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, at that time home to Teddy Hill's band; Dizzy's hero was Hill's trumpet player Roy Eldridge, and when Dizzy moved to New York in 1937, he auditioned for a place vacated by Eldridge and got the job. Soon he had toured Europe and cut his first records with the band. He freelanced with several other groups, including Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans and the Afro-Cuban band of Alberto Socarras; then in 1939 he joined Cab Calloway's band, with whom he would play until 1941.

He was apparently a pretty rowdy guy, full of on-stage tricks, and when someone from the back of the stage threw spitballs at Calloway during a concert one night, the bandleader immediately accused Gillespie. The two got into a fight and Dizzy cut Calloway with a knife; though Dizzy was not the culprit in this case, Calloway understandably fired him.

Dizzy then played as a sideman with a number of different bands run by such greats as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, as well as the "nursery of bop", the band of Earl Hines, whose members included Charlie "Bird" Parker, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan. Dizzy, already famous among musicians for his fast and furious improvisational style, says that everything changed when he heard Charlie Parker; thereafter, he played in Bird's style.

During the 40s he took part in the jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse where his closest musical companions were Parker and Thelonious Monk. Their style of playing, dubbed bebop, involved altered chord progressions and rapid syncopated rhythms, and though Parker was the musical genius who could spontaneously invent these new sounds, Dizzy was right beside him, able play with him as an equal in a way other musicians could not. Some say that when Parker died Dizzy was somehow diminished, for with that passing he lost a true equal, and he never found another.

Though bebop has been accepted into jazz history today and has even become kind of old-fashioned, it was radical at the time. At first it was popular with neither the public nor most other musicians, and the young black men's first bands and tours were not successful. But after a few years of hard times the music became more accepted, and Dizzy was at the forefront of the new movement.

It helps that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was a great entertainer, witty, amusing, and clownish. In addition, Dizzy was a superb leader, manager, and organizer; Parker, by contrast, was strung out and unreliable. Dizzy's abilities meant that he was to have a long career as a bandleader, first with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, then with various smaller and bigger bands.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent Dizzy and his big band on a goodwill tour of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the first jazz musician to be so employed. In 1964 Dizzy ran for president of the United States on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam, desegregation, and a national lottery, though he didn't win. In 1977 he visited Cuba and had his photo taken with Fidel Castro. Even though this didn't endear him to the State Department, Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House the following year and sang "Salt Peanuts" with him. In honour of his 75th birthday Dizzy sold out the Blue Note Club for a solid month - the first musician ever to do so - but sadly in 1993 he died of pancreatic cancer.

He was survived by his wife Lorraine, a dancer he had met in the 30s and married in 1940; he credited her with being a calming influence on him and helping him stay away from the drugs that cut short the lives of so many of his contemporaries. Though Lorraine and Dizzy never had children, he apparently had a daughter in 1958 with white songwriter Connie Bryson; he financially supported the girl Jeanie, who eventually became a jazz singer, but never acknowledged her publicly.

For a discography, please see

Books about Dizzy Gillespie include:

  • To Be or Not to Bop by Dizzy Gillespie with Al Foster (1978)
  • Dizzy Gillespie and the Be-Bop Revolution by Raymond Horricks (1984)
  • Dizzy Gillespie: His Life and Times by Barry McRae (1988)
  • Groovin' High. The Life Of Dizzy Gillespie by Alyn Shipton (1999)

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