Personalities | Dizzy Gillespie | Forties | Jazz & Blues

John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie shares the credit for creating bebop with Charlie Parker, but his place in the history of twentieth-century music rests on a considerably wider achievement. He was born in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917 and acquired his nickname in the 1930s.

He moved to New York and worked in big bands with Teddy Hill, Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway (the latter relationship ending acrimoniously after a notorious altercation over a spitball).

He was a prime mover in the jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, which became the forcing ground for the subsequent evolution of bebop. His speed and facility in the high register reflected the influence of Roy Eldridge, but he quickly displayed an increasingly original musical conception that came to fruition in the seminal group that he led with Charlie Parker in 1946.

Flying With Bird

The collaboration remains one of the crucial episodes in jazz history and laid the template for the new music that would both illuminate and divide the post-war jazz scene. Bebop demanded formidable technical abilities as well as imagination; Gillespie’s pyrotechnic brilliance was the perfect foil for Parker’s genius, and was underpinned by a more thorough understanding of harmonic theory than many of his contemporaries routinely possessed. Their partnership, which included further recordings and occasional reunions, such as the famous Massey Hall concert in Toronto in 1953, put bebop on the musical map and assured their joint status as jazz immortals. While Parker burnt himself out and died prematurely, however, Gillespie went on to become a respected elder statesman of the music.

The Cuban Connection

As bebop was coalescing, Dizzy was assembling what would become a celebrated big band – one that made an equally important contribution to the development of modern jazz. Gillespie was a prime mover in the creation of Afro-Cuban jazz (or ‘Cubop’), a style that brought Cuban folk and popular idioms into a jazz context. His interest was sparked by Cab Calloway’s lead trumpeter Mario Bauzá, who introduced him to percussionist Chano Pozo in 1947. Pozo was fatally shot in a bar in 1948 after contributing to Gillespie’s classic Afro-Cuban recordings ‘Manteca’, ‘Guarachi Guaro’ and ‘Cubana Be, Cubana Bop’. Latin tunes were well-established in jazz, but this was the first band to integrate real Afro-Cuban polyrhythms within the new bebop idiom, and others followed suit, including Machito, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.

The Cuban influence remained a strong element in Gillespie’s music. He adopted his trademark upturned trumpet bell in 1953 and broke new ground in 1956 by taking jazz bands on State Department-sponsored tours to Africa, the Near East, Pakistan and South America, as well as Europe.

Politics And People

Gillespie became increasingly aware of his African roots and of the civil rights campaigns in America, even running for President in 1964 under a ‘politics ought to be a groovier thing’ banner. Astute enough to avoid the pitfalls of involvement with the drugs that plagued the...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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