One of the clown princes of jazz (why do you think they called him Dizzy?), and as an entertainer arguably second only to Louis Armstrong in the jazz pantheon, John Birks Dizzy Gillespie was nonetheless one of the most serious innovators jazz has ever known. One of the legion of jazz greats from the Carolinas, Dizzy Gillespie grew up musically largely in Philadelphia. He moved there at age 18 to be with his family, later taking his first professional job in the band of Frankie Fairfax. Dizzy’s first trumpet idol was Roy Eldridge, whose style was a stylistic bridge between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy.
Among Gillespie’s formative sideman jobs were the Savoy Sultans, the Teddy Hill band, Mercer Ellington, and a particularly fruitful stint with Cab Calloway. Despite the fact that Cab wound up firing Dizzy after mistaking him for a prank played on him, Gillespie began to acquire his interest in Afro-Cuban rhythms with Calloway’s outfit. Seeking new ways to express his artistry, Dizzy became a prime mover in the after-hours jam sessions at places like Minton’s Playhouse in New York that gave wing to what became known as bebop.
He freelanced with numerous musicians in the early 40s following his departure from the Calloway band. These associations included Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Coleman Hawkins, Les Hite, Lucky Millinder, and the Earl Hines’ orchestra that included Dizzy’s musical twin, Charlie Parker. Remnants of the Hines band morphed into the Billy Eckstine band, followed by historic sessions with Parker. After his notorious 1945 west coast trip to play with Parker, Dizzy organized his own big band in 1946. This was a curious development because a great many of his bebop contemporaries, notably including Parker, disdained the big band thing out of supposed boredom. They didn’t feel big bands would accommodate their evolving new style, which was based on the small band.
Dizzy’s big band gave wing to his Afro-Cuban yearnings when he engaged Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, whose contributions represented some of the earliest deeply-drawn fusions of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz. As a trumpeter Dizzy had developed a unique style and instantly recognizable sound that was capable of bird-like soaring and deeply swinging expression, joined by an uncommonly sophisticated harmonic sense. From the time of his early band leadership in the mid-40s onward Dizzy Gillespie nurtured numerous superb musicians in his bands, these included greats from the original Modern Jazz Quartet -- which was actually his rhythm section -- to saxophonists like James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Yusef Lateef, and Cecil Payne; such arranger-composers as Gil Fuller, Lalo Schiffrin and Quincy Jones; pianist Kenny Barron, and later such Afro-Caribbean musicians as Paquito D’Rivera, Danilo Perez, and David Sanchez. Ala Armstrong and Ellington before him, Dizzy Gillespie was also one of the most popular and enduring cultural ambassadors the U.S. has ever produced.
Dizzy Gillespie playing live in 1958.