Dizzy Gillespie
Jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer
Born: October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina
Died: January 6, 1993, in Englewood, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2014: Performing Arts

A true jazz legend, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was easily recognizable for his swollen cheeks and bent trumpet, but is best remembered as a musical virtuoso and innovator.

The youngest of nine children, Gillespie grew up in the South. His father was a local bandleader, so there were always instruments around the house to learn on. Gillespie started on the piano at age four and later taught himself to play the trombone and the trumpet. He attended the Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina on a music scholarship for two years before moving with his family to Philadelphia in 1935 at age 18.

Gillespie’s professional career began with stints in bands in Philly and New York. Soon, he was performing on trumpet in prominent swing bands led by the likes of Benny Carter and Charlie Barnet, and with such major figures as Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cab Calloway.

By the 1940s, Gillespie had developed his whimsical style of playing and his adventurous approach to soloing. Performing alongside saxophonist Charlie Parker, he helped pioneer the rhythmically complex bebop genre—considered the forerunner of modern jazz. In this period, he also composed some of his most memorable jazz compositions, notably “Oop Bob Sh’ Bam,” “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

Gillespie spread the gospel of bebop through a series of small combos and big bands featuring such future giants as John Coltrane, James Moody and Milt Jackson. In 1953, at a party in Manhattan, someone supposedly sat on Gillespie’s trumpet, bending the bell upward. He liked the sound—and henceforth the bent trumpet became his trademark.

Along with bebop, Gillespie also helped popularize Afro-Cuban jazz, infusing his performances with Latin elements and his bands with Latin musicians. Working with the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, he co-wrote the classics “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo.”

By the late 1950s, Gillespie had established himself as a global star, touring for the U.S. State Department and earning the nickname “Ambassador of Jazz.” For the ensuing decades he continued to tour nationally and globally, playing everything from small clubs to giant festivals. In the 1980s, he led the United Nations Orchestra on gigs around the world. Wherever he went, Gillespie thrilled audiences and influenced generations of musicians with his showmanship and inventiveness.

In the mid-1960s, Gillespie and his wife settled in Englewood. (The local Dwight Morrow High School later renamed its auditorium in his honor.) Gillespie’s interest in world peace and an end to racism led to his joining the Baha’i Faith in 1968.

In 1991, Gillespie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; his recording and performing career soon drew to a close. He died of the disease two years later. Thankfully, he had lived long enough to accept a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and the Kennedy Center Honors tribute the following year. In 1989, he also received an honorary doctorate of music from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Intro/Acceptance Video