Birth and Young Life
John “Dizzy” Gillespie was born on October 21st, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina as the youngest of nine children.
Gillespie was introduced to music at an early age because his father James was a bartender and allowed his children to play instruments at his place of business. Gillespie started playing piano at four years old and by age twelve he had taught himself how to play trombone.
Gillespie said that the night he heard Roy Eldridge, his idol, playing on the radio he wanted to become a jazz musician. He attended the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina on a music scholarship before moving to Philadelphia with his family.
Gillespie started his professional career as a musician in 1935 by playing with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra. Gillespie joined a few more orchestras and did freelance work with other bands before joining Cab Calloway’s orchestra in 1939. In Late 1941 Calloway fired Gillespie after an on-stage altercation in which Calloway was cut with a knife. While in Calloway’s band Gillespie wrote big band music for several bandleaders including Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman. He also freelanced with Ella Fitzgerald’s Orchestra.
Afterward, he eventually joined Billy Eckstine’s big band and was reunited with Charlie Parker. Gillespie left the band in 1945 because he wanted to play in a small combo. A little combo is a group containing five musicians, playing the piano, bass, drums, trumpet, and saxophone.
The Bebop Revolution
Gillespie was one of the originators of bebop music – the first modern style of jazz. Along with musicians such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk new musical phrases were created.
The bebop style has a fast tempo improve based on harmonic structure and references to the melody, and instrumental virtuosity. It was set up to be the opposite of swing music. People weren’t meant to dance to bebop – only to listen to it.
Bebop was originally rejected by the public because it was drastically different than the traditional music at the time. A standard bebop combo would include the piano, drums, double bass, saxophone, and trumpet.
Death & Legacy
Gillespie died at age 75 on January 6, 1993, of pancreatic cancer. His body was buried in Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York. Gillespie was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2014.