Dizzy Gillespie: Biography, Songs, Albums & Facts

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to Dizzy Gillespie, the groundbreaking jazz trumpeter who has been called 'The Inventor of Bebop.' You will learn about his life, his music, and the list of collaborators with whom he revolutionized jazz.

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
Dizzy Gillespie. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs.

Early Life

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

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker. Photo by William Gottlieb.

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.

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