An iconic figure in the history of jazz music who was instantly recognizable even to millions of non-jazz fans by his puffed-out cheeks and his trademark trumpet, with its horn bent upwards at a 45-degree angle, John Birks Gillespie—better known as “Dizzy”—was born on this day in 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina.
The youngest of nine children in a musical family, John Gillespie began playing piano at the age of four and took up the trombone and trumpet at the age of 12. He showed enough talent on the latter instrument to earn a music scholarship to North Carolina’s Laurinburg Institute at the age of 15, but even through his high school years, Gillespie was essentially self-taught.
In the late 1930s, at the height of the Swing era, John Gillespie worked his way through a succession of increasingly prestigious big bands, earning a reputation as a talented performer and as a free spirit worthy of the nickname, “Dizzy.” By 1939, at the age of 22, he was playing for Cab Calloway, one of the most successful bandleaders of the time. Dizzy would stay with Calloway’s band through 1941, but more important than the recordings on which he appeared during this period were the connections he made with fellow musicians who would greatly influence the next phase of his career—musicians that included the great saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and the pianist Thelonious Monk.
During their late-night jam sessions in the early 1940s at New York clubs like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, Gillespie, Parker and Monk, among several others, established an entirely new sound in jazz: bebop. Because of a recording ban instigated by union musicians during the bulk of World War II, the evolution of bebop was not documented in commercial recordings. In the postwar era, however, the revolutionary new style took the jazz world by storm and established Gillespie’s international reputation. In addition to acting as one of bebop’s founding fathers, Dizzy Gillespie also pioneered the fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz music in the 1940s, helping to create another jazz genre of enormous popularity and importance.
Born on October 21, 1917, jazz pioneer Dizzy Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993, at the age of 75.