A Musical Mastermind: Dizzy Gillespie

Mention bebop, and the balloon-cheeked virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie might spring to mind. Not only was this master trumpeter responsible to developing and shaping the sub-genre of jazz known as “bop,” he also used his music abroad to strengthen the perception of America. Debuting on the jazz scene in the 1940s, Gillespie became famous for the quality of improvisation and the playful style of delivery.

The man who became Dizzy Gillespie was born John Birks Gillespie on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina. He was conferred with the name Dizzy in 1935 because Gillespie’s trumpet-playing, as a member of the Frank Fairfax Band, was so frenetic, unpredictable, and full of frolicking that any listener trying to follow his improvisations were left with their heads spinning. His talent seemed almost to be genetic. His father, who laid bricks for a living, was a moonlighting bandleader who filled their Southern home with an array of instruments so that Gillespie was exposed to music from the time he was born.

Gillespie started playing the piano when he was just four years old. He soon learned to play the trombone as well. It wasn’t until he was around 12 years old, after receiving a scholarship to North Carolina’s Laurinburg Institute, that he began playing the trumpet -- after teaching himself. He began his music theory studies at the Institute in 1932, a little before turning age 15. During his college years at the Institute he perfected both his trumpet skills and piano skills.

Dizzy did not complete college because he left to move to the Harlem area to hone his craft with professional jazz bands. In Harlem in 1957 he met and married Lorraine K. Willis, who grew up in New York and was a dancer on a chorus line. They stayed together until his death in 1993. They had no children together; however, Dizzy had a daughter, Jeanie, with songwriter Connie Bryson. Jeanie, born in early 1938, grew up to become a jazz musician like her father.

In addition to playing with the Frankie Fairfax Band, Gillespie was a member of other bands such as the Savoy Sultans and Alberto Socarras’ Afro-Cuban band. Gillespie also played alongside jazz greats such as Cab Callaway and Charlie Parker. One Gillespie’s greatest musical hits was the 1942 “Night in Tunisia” which he composed and recorded with Parker, a fellow mate in the Earl Hines band. Other Gillespie signature music hits include “Groovin High” and “Salt Peanuts.”

Dizzy Gillespie’s contributions to music are still much heralded today, despite his death in 1993. There are tribute bands that play his music at festivals. Online audio recordings and interviews keep the legend alive for new generations.