Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.
The Sound of Surprise
A critic once called trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's music 'the sound of surprise.' And what a perfect way to describe it! The trumpet virtuoso's strident high notes, his ability to improvise at unheard-of speeds, and his flair for dramatic, extreme playing - you never knew what would come next in a Dizzy Gillespie solo. From his early swing days to his groundbreaking collaborations with Charlie Parker and Chano Pozo, this lesson will cover many sides of Dizzy Gillespie, including the origin of his name.
Dizzy Gillespie was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, on Oct. 21, 1917. His father was a career bandleader, so young John had access to all sorts of musical instruments from an early age, including brasses, saxophones, and an upright piano (John's first musical instrument). The unexpected death of his father when he was ten instilled the boy with a drive to learn the trumpet, and he soon added on trombone and cornet. Radio encounters with the music of Roy Eldridge, an early jazz trumpet legend, inspired the youngster to concentrate on trumpet.
John's musical prowess earned him a scholarship in 1932 to the Laurinburg Institute of South Carolina, where he continued his self-guided study of trumpet and piano. Before finishing his education, though, he moved to Philadelphia (his family's new home), where he joined a band led by Frankie Fairfax. Gillespie's musical career had begun.
In the Fairfax band, Gillespie played alongside trumpet luminary Charlie Shavers, who helped refine the young trumpeter's craft and developed his understanding of Roy Eldridge's playing. John earned his nickname 'Dizzy' during his tenure with the Fairfax band, a reference to his wacky, jokester stage presence.
After a move to New York in 1937, Dizzy held positions in bands led by Teddy Hill, Al Cooper, and others, culminating in a spot in the band led by Cab Calloway, a famous singer and bandleader. The Cab Calloway band recorded some of Dizzy's finest early solos, including the 1940 solo on the tune 'Pickin' the Cabbage.'
Charlie Parker and Bebop
During his tenure with Calloway, Dizzy met a young alto saxophonist named Charlie Parker. The two hit it off, and before long were co-leading an after-hours jam session in New York which featured some of the city's hottest jazz musicians.
Dizzy's relationship with Calloway was ultimately ill-fated, and following a 1941 dispute that came to blows onstage, he was fired from the band. While Dizzy moved through other bands - including those led by singer Ella Fitzgerald and vibraphonist Earl Hines - he also continued playing in small groups with Charlie Parker, and even led his own big band for a time.
In his 40s-era projects with Parker, the duo broke away from the swing they had played in stage bands and began developing a new style of jazz, characterized by faster tempos, more complex harmonies, and high-density melodies featuring lots of notes. This new style, which began to be known as bebop, gave Dizzy a chance to showcase his virtuosity on the trumpet, particularly his high notes and ability to improvise ideas at breakneck speeds.
This creative period produced some of Dizzy's most famous and beloved tunes, including 'Salt Peanuts', 'Groovin' High', and the Latin-tinged 'A Night In Tunisia'. In the late 1940s, Gillespie and Parker held a series of recording sessions at Savoy Records which featured debut takes of these compositions and many others. These sessions, collectively available as the album Groovin' High (released in 1992), represent some of the earliest and most important bebop recordings.
Latin Jazz and Later Projects
In the late 40s, Dizzy met a Cuban drummer named Chano Pozo who was interested in combining his native Cuban music with his adopted jazz. The trumpeter had long been interested in introducing Latin American elements to his music, and Gillespie added Pozo to his band. Together they composed several landmark tunes including 'Manteca' (featuring Dizzy's radiant high-register playing) and 'Tin Tin Deo'. These and other compositions relied on Cuban rhythms while using bebop-style harmonies and leaving ample space for jazz improvisation.
Latin jazz like this, combining elements of jazz and Latin American (especially Cuban) music, was the next frontier for Dizzy, and it would feature in his output for the next few decades. Some highlights include Afro from 1954, and New Wave! from 1963. Meanwhile, he continued developing and refining his bebop voice, in albums such as Birks' Works (1957), Have Trumpet, Will Excite! (1959), and his score to the film The Cool World (1964). Dizzy never felt the pressure of some of his contemporaries to innovate and change stylistically; instead, he would continue to further his command of bebop and Latin jazz with countless different bands and ensemble sizes.
Last Decades and Proteges
Dizzy had been a devoted teacher much of his life, numbering trumpeters Miles Davis and Lee Morgan among his early students. When age began affecting his ability to play the trumpet, he turned his focus to developing the careers and musical voices of young trumpeters, although he would continue performing. Among his proteges were Jon Faddis from California, and Cuban Arturo Sandoval, whom Dizzy had met during a tour of Cuba in the late 70s.
Dizzy Gillespie passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1993, with his wife and several of his students at his side. His legacy includes over 30 albums, Kennedy Center honors, and a jazz club in New York which bears his name: Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
- According to Dizzy, his trademark bent horn was created by accident. After a pair of dancers knocked over his trumpet onstage, the bell was bent at a 45-degree angle. Dizzy played the rest of the night on the bent instrument, and liked the way it altered the sound.
- A Dizzy Gillespie show wasn't just about trumpet playing. Dizzy would often sing, 'scat,' and include theatrics and comedy in his performances.
- The 'dispute' that led to Dizzy's dismissal from the Calloway band is said to have begun with a spitball that Calloway accused Dizzy of shooting.
- Dizzy wrote about his life and adventures in a 1979 autobiography, To Be, or Not...to Bop.
Dizzy Gillespie was an American jazz trumpeter, and also had success as a composer and bandleader. Born in South Carolina, his father's collection of instruments allowed him to experiment with music at a young age. After playing in big bands in Philadelphia and New York, he and saxophonist Charlie Parker began collaborating on projects in a new musical language which became known as 'bebop.' Later, Dizzy would work with Latin musicians like drummer Chano Pozo to create Latin jazz. These two artistic streams defined his music for most of his life, although later he turned to mentoring young musicians such as Jon Faddis and Arturo Sandoval.
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