Dizzy's Diamond Anniversary: Illness and Convalescence Fail to Diminish Enthusiasm for Jazz Great's 75th Birthday

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Illness and convalescence fail to diminish enthusiasm for jazz greats 75th birthday.

WHEN Dizzy Gillespie pressed his trumpet to his lips and let go a rapid-fire succession of notes during an early-morning jam session at Harlem's famed Minton's Playhouse 50 years ago, he helped spark a musical revolution that forever changed the face of jazz.

This music of modernity, called bebop, transformed Gillespie from a relatively unknown trumpet player into a major voice of the new jazz generation. And his balloon-like cheeks, zany onstage antics and trademark upturned horn, bent accidentally during horseplay at a nightclub, made him the most recognizable musician of the bebop era.

The phenomenal instrumentalist, composer and arranger celebrated his 75th birthday this year, marking five decades of music making. A highlight of Gillespies diamond jubilee was a Caribbean cruise featuring a 60-member allstar jazz band that coincided with his birthday on Oct. 21. Gillespies wife of 52 years, Lorraine, joined him for the week-long jam session at sea.

The cruise capped off a physically and emotionally draining year for Gillespie, who kicked off his year-long tour in January 1992 with a four-week musical spectacular at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.

But in late February, after concerts in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., Gillespie fell ill and was hospitalized. Doctors discovered his diabetic condition was raging out of control and that he was suffering from an intestinal blockage that required surgery. He put his tour on hold and returned home to Englewood, N.J., for the operation and months of bed rest.

The monotony of lying in bed day after day with few visitors left the usually upbeat musician depressed. But as his condition improved, his doctors let a few pals in to see him. Funnyman Bill Cosby stopped by. Saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and fellow trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis shared a few laughs, too. Soon, Gillespies spirit soared.

Ironically, Gillespie's illness focused even greater attention on the profound impact he has had on jazz. Such is his stature in modern jazz circles that 75th birthday tributes went on in his absence. At a fall tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Gillespie did not play a single note, but brought the crowd to its feet simply by walking on stage.

The emotional outpouring and international recognition Gillespie enjoys today is a far cry from the isolation and poverty he endured growing up in rural South Carolina.

John Birks Gillespie, born in Cheraw, S.C., the youngest of James and Lottie Gillespies nine children, took up the trumpet in the third grade. …