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Dizzy Gillespie

JazzTimes’ first subscriber, the legendary trumpet player and jazz innovator Dizzy Gillespie, was born on October 21, 1917. He died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993.

Google celebratied his birthday with a “Google Doodle” on their site. Anyone going to Google on that day saw an illustration of the trumpeter in the form of the Google logo.

Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, but like many African-Americans in the early to mid 20th century, moved North to make his way in the world. He began his music career as a trumpeter in the horn section of various touring big bands, eventually finding his way into Cab Calloway’s band, along with Milt Hinton and other future jazz greats. In his early years, Dizzy was very much under the thrall of Roy Eldridge. But it was during his time with Calloway that Gillespie began to find his own voice. In addition, he met saxophonist Charlie Parker then and started to explore a new way of approaching music. The music that Gillespie, Parker, Thelonious Monk and others developed was called Bebop. And Gillespie became probably its most successful ambassador.

Gillespie was fired by Calloway after an incident in which one of the bandmembers threw a spitball near the bandleader who blamed it on Gillespie. The two men got into an argument which quickly escalated with Dizzy pulling a knife on Calloway, who fired the young trumpeter on the spot. That nearly apocryphal incident and other colorful stories of Gillespie with Calloway are included in a new book on Calloway-Hi De Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway-by Alyn Shipton.

Gillespie would go on to play with other big bands and orchestras including those of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, where he was reunited with Parker. Eventually the two began collaborating in the small group format, one which still resonates in jazz today. So too the approach of improvising over the chord changes of songs played in swinging breakneck tempos. Although Parker was perhaps the most virtuosic of the young beboppers, he was also the most meteoric, eventually succumbing to the effects of various substance abuses. Whether by default or design, Gillespie become the virtual high priest of bebop and his bent horn became a symbol of the idiosyncratic musical form of jazz.

Gillespie also had a keen interest in Latin and Cuban music. His collaboration with Chano Pozo was one of the earliest intersections between mainstream jazz players and Latin percussionists. Many of Gillespie’s songs have become jazz standards, including “Caravan” and “Night in Tunisia.” When he was younger, Gillespie once derided the stage antics of Louis Armstrong, who had been critical of the young beboppers, whose music he described as like “Chinese music,” in its inaccessibility. But in time, Gillespie and Armstrong established a relationship based on mutual respect. Gillespie himself turned out to have a similar public persona as Armstrong, mugging and clowning on stage, and being accessible to fans off stage, and also being a mentor to multiple generations of younger musicians. For the last 30 years or so of his life, Gillespie toured all over the world, often playing in places and countries heretofore unaccustomed to jazz. It was as if Armstrong had passed the torch to the younger Gillespie who became internationally known as the music’s most active ambassador.

Gillespie wrote an autobiography called To Be or Not Bebop in which he recounted his early years. He also made numerous appearances in the mass media, perhaps most famously on Sesame Street. His legacy has been kept alive not only by various trumpeters such as protégé Jon Faddis and Arturo Sandoval, but also by former bandmembers and collaborators, including John Lee, Paquito D’Rivera, Mike Longo, Danilo Perez and James Moody.

(By Lee Mergner)