Pioneer Profile | Dizzy Gillespie

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For our first Pioneer Profile entry of 2021, we discuss the boss of Bebop, Dizzy Gillespie.

John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie was a trumpet player, bandleader, singer, composer, comic performer and businessman, dubbed “the sound of surprise” by his peers.

Together with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie was a major figure in the development of what became known as ‘bebop’ and influenced many musicians from both inside and outside of jazz. One of the greatest jazz musicians to pick up a trumpet, Gillespie’s approach was so sophisticated for the time, that most of his contemporaries wouldn’t even attempt to copy his style for use in their own playing.

Dizzy was also instrumental in establishing ‘Afro-Cuban Jazz’, evolving the early-jazz influence of what pioneer Jelly Roll Morton often referred to as the “Spanish Tinge”.

Jelly Roll Morton – King Porter Stomp

Dizzy Gillespie became revered as a virtuosic improviser, who built his style off the back of players like Roy Eldridge and Charlie Shavers – all the while adding layers of harmonic complexity never heard before. Dizzy’s beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn (due to being stepped on by dancers at a party for his wife Lorraine), bullfrog cheeks and his light-hearted manner were not only what made bebop popular – you could say he was and is bebop.

His world-renowned bloated cheeks only came about due to being totally self-taught. Never having been given any tutoring in his formative years, by the time he got to be a mature musician, it was so imbedded in his playing that he kept it going. The tilted trumpet was also just another part of his genius for PR, as he publicly claimed it made the instrument sound better. To keep the legend going, Dizzy actually had his trumpets custom made with the 45-degree angle as an intentional design feature.

The Beginning

Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina – the youngest of nine children. His father, James, was a brick layer and local bandleader who passed on his love for music onto his son, John. Unfortunately, his father passed away when Dizzy was just ten years old, but the love for music had already taken hold and at age twelve he began to teach himself to play both the trumpet and the trombone. His ticket to seriously study music arrived after he was chosen to attend the Laurinburg Institute, North Carolina in 1932. At seventeen, Dizzy decided he’d had enough of school and moved to Philadelphia, where he began to work as a musician.

Soon after, Dizzy joined a band led by Frankie Fairfax, which included fellow trumpeter Charlie Shavers. Shavers knew many of the trumpet solos of Roy Eldridge, and Gillespie learned them by mimicking Shavers. It was while he was in Fairfax’s band, that Gillespie’s earned his nickname ‘Dizzy’ due to his playful nature. In 1937, it was now time to leave Philadelphia behind and move on again. This time? New York City.

Pioneer Profile | Dizzy Gillespie
Statue of Gillespie in his hometown of Cheraw, South Carolina.

The late 1930s and early 1940s proved to be the most impactful period in Gillespie’s career. In ‘39 he joined Cab Calloway’s band, which included the legendary Cuban-born trumpeter, Mario Bauzá. It was through Mario that Gillespie learnt the basics of Afro-Cuban music and its close relationship to jazz. Gillespie continued to explore the combination of the two sounds, and was partly responsible for bringing Afro-Cuban music into the sonic-palette of jazz musicians worldwide. You can check out his most influential experimentation with Afro-Cuban music in the composition “Manteca”, co-written with Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller in 1947.

During this period Gillespie continued to play all-night jam sessions at Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House to further develop his musical style. Gillespie joined the Earl “Fatha” Hines band in 1942, along with Kansas City native, Charlie Parker. Although Parker became famous as an alto saxophonist, he was playing tenor sax at that time. Gillespie first met Parker in his hometown of Kansas City in 1940 whilst on tour with Cab Calloway. The two of them jammed together at the Booker T. Washington Hotel for several hours – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dizzy Gillespie with the Kenny Clarke / Francy Boland Big Band, Denmark (Nov 4, 1970).


Dizzy et al created bebop as a conscious manifestation of an authentic, Afro-American artistic expression unfettered by, and purposely at odds with, the jazz music that mainstream, predominantly white audiences had become so enamoured with.

Big bands and swing were the mainstay of professional life for musicians but the style had become for some too regimented and repetitive, with arrangements and compositions repeating the popular musical clichés that appealed to the audiences of the day. With little room for individual creativity, Dizzy took part in jam sessions at places like Minton’s and Monroe’s, which gave musicians the chance to experiment and compete with each other in more extended solos. These sessions became the Petri dish for the development of what would become bebop.

Compositions like “Groovin’ High”, “Woody ‘n’ You”, and “Salt Peanuts” sounded radically different – harmonically and rhythmically – from the swing music of the day, and our special focus for this week (post to follow), “A Night in Tunisia”, is noted for its syncopated bass line, a musical element that only became common in today’s music thereafter.

“Woody ‘n’ You” was first recorded in a session led by Coleman Hawkins with Gillespie as a featured sideman on February 16, 1944, as is considered the first formal bebop recording.

Bebop was developed by evolving the foundations of the musical style found in swing, and further back, even if there were some surface musical elements that can also be seen as revolutionary. The emphasis on virtuosity and ability to improvise over and imply complex harmony, and the resulting focus on musical line (which grew out of the great swing soloists like Coleman Hawkins) with special effects and tonal elements less emphasised suggests a more artistic aspiration rather than a music springing just from the idea of popular entertainment or music to dance to.

Often bebop was too fast to dance to but still went after what is was to swing. This is balanced by the music using swing chord sequences with new melodies, the same front line/back line instrumentation as the swing period (with some reduction/modification), and the same conception of soloing over a given harmonic background and a groove that also roots the music in previous styles.

WWII represented the second time black Americans had come back from Europe having fought for their country and were still experiencing the same racism and civil rights issues as before. This period saw a stronger feeling develop, that challenged mainstream society to change and acknowledge the unfairness in the way black people were treated. The social dynamics of Bebop and the subtle messages in the music (e.g. titles like “Anthropology”, “Ornithology”, “A Night in Tunisia”) point towards a sense of intellectualism and consciousness that presaged figures like Malcolm X, making this particular contribution a profoundly important moment in the history of jazz culture.

The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet

Dizzy Gillespie Quintet play the iconic BBC programme “Jazz 625”

We’d take the chord structures of various standard and pop tunes and create new chords, melodies, and songs from them.”

Dizzy on his quintet’s approach in Esquire Magazine, 1944

Gillespie’s quintet and the development of what became ‘modern jazz’ reached its peak in 1953 at Massey Hall (Toronto), with the all-star line-up of Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (sax), Bud Powell (piano), Max Roach (drums) and Charles Mingus (bass). Billed by many jazz critics at the time as “the greatest jazz concert ever”. This is also a vintage recording which captured Dizzy’s ability to include humour and playfulness alongside his unique improvisational skills.

There’s not much to say, other than: if you haven’t heard these recordings before, you’re in for a treat!

Listen to “Jazz at Massey Hall” now!

Afro-Cuban Jazz

Dizzy was fascinated by rhythms that reflect their origin; whether in Afro-Cuban music, Indian tabla-playing, or African-rooted percussion, he was forever curious about rhythms of the world. One of his fondest experiences came from touring with the South African singer, songwriter, actress, goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba.

He first heard Afro-Cuban music gigging with salsa bands in East Harlem when he was a starving 18 year old just starting out. It is claimed that slave owners did not allow black people to have drums as they were afraid that the unifying pulse would foment a revolution of sonic communication. Meanwhile, to the south in Spanish and Portuguese slave colonies such as Cuba and Brazil, slaves were permitted to play drums freely, which he believed preserved many of the African drumming traditions.

“Mango Mangue” recorded in New York City, December 20, 1948.

The traditional clave is a syncopated two-measure rhythmic pattern that originated in Africa and made its way into Afro-Caribbean culture. Tunes like Mario Bauzá’s “Tanga” (1943) – considered the first song to meld Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz – are a great example of how Afro-Cuban rhythms entered the New York music scene during the 40s, and before long, Latin percussion became a mainstay in certain line-ups.

Throughout the 1940s, Afro-Cuban rhythms went beyond New York and entered the mainstream of American jazz. Cuban musicians Mario Bauzá and Frank Grillo (aka Machito) brought the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans to New York. Around the same time, Dizzy Gillespie – now a star of the bebop movement – joined forces with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and wrote tunes like “Mangó Mangüé” and “Manteca”, which quickly became hits. Gillespie and Ponzo’s amalgamation of Cuban music with bebop soon became known as “Cubop” in jazz circles.

In 1977, Gillespie met Arturo Sandoval during a jazz cruise to Havana. Sandoval toured with Gillespie and defected in Rome in 1990 while touring with Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra, which Gillespie led throughout the 1980s.

In 1989, Gillespie was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The next year, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ceremonies celebrating the centennial of American jazz, Gillespie received the Kennedy Center Honors Award and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Duke Ellington Award for 50 years of achievement as a composer, performer, and bandleader.

A longtime resident of Englewood, New Jersey, Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993, at the age of 75 and was buried in the place he called home for so long, New York City.

Check out the release our our split-screen performance of “A Night in Tunisia” in honour of the great man, which is due THIS FRIDAY!

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