John Birks Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina and was the youngest of nine children. Dizzy taught himself piano and trombone at an early age and was inspired to switch to the trumpet at age twelve upon hearing his greatest early influence, Roy Eldridge. Gillespie received a scholarship to attend the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina but dropped out in 1935 to begin to work professionally in Jazz. In 1937 Dizzy joined Teddy Hill’s band and took over as first trumpet for Roy Eldridge. After a few years with Hill’s band and a tour of Europe, Gillespie joined Cab Calloway in 1939. Calloway never cared for Dizzy’s humor or playing and during a performance Calloway was hit by a spit ball by a band member and wrongly accused Dizzy and ended his stint with the band.
Dizzy played for several bands over the next few years including those of Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnett and Duke Ellington. He also arranged tunes for big bands of the time including Benny Carter’s, Jimmy Dorsey’s and Woody Herman’s. Herman thought so much of Gillespie’s arranging, he suggested Dizzy arrange fulltime and put down the trumpet. But Dizzy kept on playing and during this time was creating bebop late at night at the jam sessions at Milton’s Playhouse. In 1945 Dizzy teamed up with Charlie Parker and the two made legendary recordings of the tunes “Hot House”, “Salt Peanuts”, and “Groovin High” among others. Dizzy and Bird played together promoting bebop, most notably on the west coast, but audiences were not yet ready for the new music. Gillespie then formed his successful big band which included members Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, James Moody, J.J. Johnson, Yusef Lateef and even Jon Coltrane for a time. Due to the economic issues of running a big band, along with big band bebop not being as popular as swing, by 1950 Dizzy had to break up his orchestra.
In the late 1940s Dizzy also discovered Afro-Cuban music, and helped spread the music in this country. It was a meeting with Chano Pozo that began the love of this music for Dizzy and much later in life, Dizzy met Arturo Sandoval in Cuba and the two became close friends and colleagues. 1956, the State Department commissioned Gillespie to form and lead a band that play internationally for several years. In the 1960s, Gillespie led several small groups that included Junior Mance, Leo Wright, James Moody and Kenny Barron among others. In the 1970s Dizzy toured the world with The Giants of Jazz and led the United Nations Big Band in the 1980s.
Throughout Dizzy’s career he made many appearances in movies and television including Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and The Cosby Show. He published his autobiography, “To Be or Not to Bop”, in 1979. In 1960 he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. He won a Grammy in 1976 for Best Jazz Performance and in 1990 the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1989 Dizzy played 300 performances in 27 countries, going strong until his passing in 1993.
“I always try to teach by example and not force my ideas on a young musician. One of the reasons we're here is to be a part of this process of exchange.” – Dizzy Gillespie
“It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.” – Dizzy Gillespie