Dizzy Gillespie, a Jazz Giant

By Leymarie, Isabelle | UNESCO Courier, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Dizzy Gillespie, a Jazz Giant


Leymarie, Isabelle, UNESCO Courier


John Birks Gillespie was born in Cheraw, a small town in South Carolina. Neither his father, a builder who led a dance-band at weekends, nor his mother took much interest in his education. But young John was bright and curious about everything, especially music. Unbeknown to his father, he practised on the various band instruments stored in the house and learned to play the trumpet with a neighbour's son.

As a teenager, he worked for a time on one of the public-works projects set up by the Roosevelt Administration under the New Deal. But manual labour was not to his liking, and he soon obtained a scholarship to the Laurinburg Technical Institute, an agricultural college for Blacks in North Carolina. He played trombone and then trumpet in the college band, and started studying musical theory and trying his hand at the piano. At weekends he performed with a small group of teenage musicians. The cornetist King Oliver, who was giving a concert locally, heard him play and offered him a job, but Dizzy preferred to stay with his friends.

In 1935, he left high school to move with his mother to Philadelphia, where he sat in on innumerable jam sessions and, at eighteen, joined the Frankie Fairfax band. His first role model was Roy Eldridge, six years his senior, who was regarded as the fastest and most innovative trumpeter then playing and who was at that time with Teddy Hill's band. When not rehearsing or performing, Dizzy spent all his time studying harmony on the piano, a grounding to which he later attributed his ability to play in any key. It was about this time that his fellow trumpeter Palmer Davis, impressed both by his virtuosity and his non-stop fooling about, nicknamed him "Dizzy".

The birth of bebop

In 1937, Dizzy moved in with his brother in Harlem, where he hung around the Savoy Ballroom and jammed with the Savoy Sultans, Fess Williams, Claude Hopkins, Willie Bryant and Chick Webb. Webb, who had just discovered a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald, realized that his was an exceptional talent and often called him in as replacement solo trumpet. When Dizzy started his first big band in 1946, he toured the southern states with Ella and encouraged her to take up scat-singing.

Dizzy became friendly with Mario Bauza, one of Webb's trumpeters, and, at the Cotton Club, with the flautist Alberto Socarras, who between them introduced him to Cuban music. A few months later, he met the sax and clarinet player Teddy Hill, who was just about to set off on a European tour and was looking for a trumpeter. Dizzy talked him into giving him a break and, in a career move that went beyond his wildest dreams, took over from his mentor Roy Eldridge in the band. He impressed audiences with his embouchure and perfected his high-register playing, his soaring riffs and a harmonic concept that was far ahead of its time (so far that the singer Cab Calloway, who hired him in 1939, forbade him to play what - unable to understand it - he called his "Chinese" music).

After the commercially-oriented swing era with its mainly White big bands (Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey), Black jazzmen were gripped by a fever of creativity. The most innovative of them, guitarist Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and Charlie Parker, the latter fresh from Kansas City, met for jam sessions in the clubs of Harlem, including the famous Minton's Playhouse. That was where, according to Miles Davis, musicians really cut their teeth; they had to have played at Minton's to earn a reputation among jazzmen. Dizzy and his friends experimented there with unfamiliar harmonies and frenzied tempo, and created numbers with jokey titles. It was from these experiments that bebop was to emerge, soon to take definite shape in the clubs of Fifty-second Street, jazz's new centre of gravity.

The elder statesman of jazz

In 1941, Dizzy was accused by Cab Calloway of throwing a spitball at him during a gig and was thrown out of the band. …

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