Dizzy Gillespie - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


           With his puffed-out cheeks and trumpet pointed to the sky, Dizzy Gillespie has been an iconic jazz figure for decades. An inveterate jammer and scene-maker, he was a key participant in the development of bebop as a non-pareil instrumentalist and occasional vocalist, a composer, and a leader of bands both big and small. He is also credited as the founder of Afro-Cuban jazz.


            John Birks Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children. His father was a bricklayer as well as a piano-playing bandleader. The young Gillespie started playing piano around the age of four. When he was 12, the state of South Carolina donated a collection of instruments to his school, and he switched to trumpet. He went on to receive a full scholarship to the Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina, where he studied music theory and trumpet. His father had died when he was ten, and when the rest of the family moved to Philadelphia in 1935, Gillespie stayed in the South in order to graduate from the institute. When he rejoined the family up North, he started playing combo gigs before taking a regular seat in the Frankie Fairfax band. It was here that he got his nickname, although stories differ as to whether it was bestowed by fellow trumpet man Palmer Davis, as bop historian Ira Gitler has it, or by drummer Norman Dibble, which is the way Alyn Shipton, author of a 1999 biography, tells it. Either way, the name stuck.


            Moving up from the South, where the music lagged behind the innovations of the North, Gillespie had a lot to learn about the scene. In 1936, when trumpeters Charlie Shavers and Carl "Bama" Warwick joined the Fairfax group, he finally had contemporaries to learn from and experiment with. The playing of the great Louis Armstrong was naturally an influence at this early stage, although possibly because of Armstrong’s antipathy to bebop, Gillespie always downplayed it, citing Roy Eldridge as his first trumpet hero. “I think that my idea of how the trumpet was supposed to sound—after I had developed to a certain point—took on a different, and maybe a little deeper harmonic view of the trumpet than Roy,” he told interviewer Les Tomkins in 1973.


            Gillespie’s first recording experience was with the Teddy Hill band in 1937. Soon after, he followed Warwick and Shavers to New York, where they were part of Lucky Millender’s Mills Blue Rhythm Orchestra . He didn’t get a job with Millender, but he found occasional work with Chick Webb’s orchestra and the Savoy Sultans. Gillespie rejoined the Hill band for a tour of Europe in 1937, but because he was as yet unable to play with the precision that Hill demanded, he was left out of a Parisian recording session.


            Scuffling back in New York, Gillespie continued to develop his sound, honing his chops until he was ready to join the Cab Calloway organization in 1939. By the fall of that year, he was well-regarded enough to appear as the only brassman in an all-star session led by vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. The session featured the all-time great saxophone section of Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, and Chu Berry, as well as the innovative guitarist Charlie Christian. Although Calloway’s group, one of the leading orchestras of the day, was primarily a dance band backing the leader’s distinctive vocal style, an atmosphere of musical experimentation was cultivated, especially by players like saxophonist Berry, bassist Milt Hinton, and guitarist Danny Barker. It was while on tour with Calloway in Kansas City in 1940, that Gillespie make the acquaintance of the man he would go on to describe as “the other side of my heartbeat,” alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.


            Gillespie and Parker, along with other explorers like pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, guitarist Christian, and drummers Kenny Clarke, were at the heart of creating bebop, a style established in after-hours jamming at Harlem clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and the Uptown House. On unofficial live recordings of the early days of bop, you can practically hear the harmonic and rhythmic advances of the new style bursting into actuality on the bandstand. As Donald Maggin, another of Gillespie’s biographers has written, bebop “was the first great jazz revolution, and it provided a precious gift for future generations - a radical expansion of the resources available to the improviser. (Italics his).” Gillespie “was always foolin’ around the piano,” as he told Tomkins, and since the new music was characterized in part by advanced harmonies with substituted and altered chords, with this strong theoretical foundation from his early formal training and his continued piano explorations, he was uniquely positioned as an important composer and performer of bop anthems like “Salt Peanuts” and “‘Shaw Nuff.” As the impressive trumpet master with the distinctive beret, he was also one of the new music’s most public faces.


            Gillespie stayed with the Calloway group until an unseemly incident in September 1941, in Hartford, CT. When Calloway saw a spitball thrown on stage and thought Mr. Gillespie had done it (he hadn’t), there was a fight, during which Gillespie pulled a knife and cut Calloway badly enough to require stitches. Gillespie returned to New York and while working in orchestras led by Hawkins, Millender, Les Hite, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Dorsey, continued to work in small groups developing bebop. In 1944, he joined Billy Eckstine when the singer and trombonist took over part of the Earl Hines band. This was the first bebop orchestra, and Gillespie was the musical director. The orchestra lasted until 1947, recording sporadically for Deluxe and National, later leased to Savoy, and most recently available as The Legendary Big Band (2002 Savoy).


            1945 was a big year for the trumpeter. It opened with the first of Gillespie’s recordings as a leader, for the Manor label in January, including the premieres of “Salt Peanuts,” the anthemic “bebop,” and “Good Bait,” plus a version of “I Can’t Get Started.” Quickly to follow were a sextet session with saxophonist Dexter Gordon for Guild in early February which yielded “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” and another sextet later in the month, this time with Parker, with more masterpieces like “Groovin’ High,” “All the Things You Are” and “Dizzy Atmosphere.” From March until May, Gillespie and Parker co-led a quintet at the Three Deuces, their longest sustained period of intensive playing. A notable small group recording of 1945 is the recently discovered Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 concert (2005 Uptown). Gillespie also organized his first big band that summer. It broke up after a disastrous tour of the South, and the year ended on a sour note when a trip to the West Coast with Parker found audiences there hostile to the new style.


            Returning to New York early in the new year, Gillespie organized a sextet featuring drummer Clarke, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and bassist Ray Brown that became the nucleus of his next attempt at maintaining a big band. The group that he presented at the Spotlite Club in the spring of 1946 included Monk at the piano (soon replaced by John Lewis) and arrangements by Walter “Gil” Fuller, who would continue to collaborate with Gillespie for years to come. Reconnecting with fellow trumpeter Mario Bauza, whom he’d met years before, Gillespie was introduced to percussionist Chano Pozo, newly arrived from Cuba. Very quickly, Gillespie infused his music with Latin rhythms, resulting in the historically important session of December 1947 for Victor when the band with Pozo waxed “Algo Bueno (Woody ‘N You),” two arrangements by George Russell (“Cubana Be” and “Cubana Bop”), and the classic “Manteca.” As Bauza later told The New York Times, “It was a good marriage of two cultures. That was the beginning of Afro-Cuban jazz. That blew up the whole world.” The Complete RCA Victor Recordings appeared in a 2-CD set in 1995.


            Gillespie managed to keep his big band together until the spring of 1950, playing and singing crowd-pleasing trifles like “Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat” alongside classics like “Things To Come” and “Two Bass Hit.” Money was tight, though, and Gillespie went through a rough period in the early part of the decade. He made an attempt to control his music with his own label, Dee Gee Records, in 1951, but the seriously under-capitalized label soon folded, selling the masters to Savoy. One artistic highlight was the famous concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May, 1953, which reunited Gillespie with Parker plus a rhythm section of Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. (This was also the year that someone fell on Gillespie’s trumpet, bending it upwards. It stayed that way because Dizzy felt he could hear the instrument more clearly.) At the urging of his wife Lorraine, Gillespie accepted a lucrative offer from entrepreneur Norman Granz and his Jazz at the Philharmonic operation that included a non-exclusive tour contract and lots of recording opportunities for Granz’s family of labels. Starting in 1954, Gillespie and Granz were able to bring bebop into the mainstream and establish Gillespie as a major jazz artist.


            With Granz, Gillespie had the opportunity to work on small group outings that included saxophonists James Moody and a young Hank Mobley, big band sessions that included a string date with Johnny Richards’ arrangements, and several sessions pairing him with Roy Eldridge, among other situations. Gillespie started making international tours under the auspices of the US State Department in 1956, including a Latin American big band tour that summer that included stops in Buenos Aires and Rio De Janeiro. The group included old friend “Bama” Warwick, along with trumpeter Quincy Jones, saxophonists Phil Woods and Benny Golson, and trombonist Melba Liston. Several volumes of recordings from the tour were issued on the Red Anchor label in 1999.


            When Granz retired from the record business in 1961 and sold the Verve label to Metro, Gillespie’s recording activities moved to the Phillips label until 1964. (Birks Works: The Verve Big-Band Sessions came out on Verve in 1995. In 2006, the collectors label Mosaic collected the recordings of Gillespie’s working bands on The Verve/Phillips Dizzy Gillespie Small Group Sessions.) During the Sixties and Seventies, and beyond, Gillespie toured constantly, often playing hundreds of shows a year. In 1971, he undertook a world tour as a member of the Giants Of Jazz , an all-star sextet with Monk, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, trombonist Kai Winding, bassist Al McKibbon, and drummer Art Blakey.


            When Norman Granz got back into the record business in 1973 with his Pablo label, he soon signed Gillespie. Beginning with a session backing singer Joe Turner in 1974, the trumpeter once again enjoyed a stimulating array of musical partners, including guitarist Joe Pass, pianist Oscar Peterson, further encounters with Eldridge and Stitt, and an array of recorded concert appearances. Gillespie’s well-received autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, appeared in 1979. He continued to tour and appear in a variety of contexts, reuniting with Benny Carter on In the Mood For Swing (1987 MusicMasters), appearing on Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block album (1989 Qwest), and performing a memorable duet concert with Roach (Max & Diz Paris 1989, A&M). Gillespie’s last major project was the Latin-oriented United Nations Orchestra, which often featured reedist Paquito D’Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and trombonist Steve Turre.


            In addition to his many obvious accomplishments as stellar instrumentalist and composer, Gillespie was a consistent nurturer of new talent. The rhythm section of his late Forties big band, which was featured during performances to give the horns a rest, gave birth to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Later editions of his groups included early work by players like saxophonist John Coltrane, drummer Charli Persip, trumpeters Lee Morgan and Jon Faddis, and pianists Lalo Schifrin and Kenny Barron.


            By adapting the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of bebop to the big band setting, partly through harnessing the technical virtuosity required to play the music, Gillespie helped to popularize his own innovations and make the music more accessible to the average listener. It’s difficult to imagine post-war audiences dancing to the free-wheeling freneticism that characterizes much of the early bop, but as Gillespie later noted, listeners “are not particular about whether you're playing a flatted fifth or a ruptured 129th as long as they can dance to it.” Having established several revolutions in popular music in a relatively short period of time in the Forties, Gillespie spent the rest of his career consolidating his achievements by popularizing and exploring the ramifications of bebop and Afro-Cuban music. With the examples of Fats Waller and Calloway in mind, his shows combined humor, virtuosity, and danceable rhythms in crowd-pleasing proportions. The language and lessons of bebop pioneered by Gillespie and Parker have permeated popular music since the Fifties, and Dizzy’s legacy is resoundingly secure.

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