John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and composer. He was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, the youngest of nine children. Dizzy's father, James, was a local bandleader, so instruments were made available to Dizzy. He started to play the piano at the age of 4. Together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz.
In addition to featuring in these epochal moments in bebop, he was instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban jazz, the modern jazz version of what early-jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton referred to as the "Spanish Tinge". Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and gifted improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. In addition to his instrumental skills, Dizzy's beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop. He had an enormous impact on subsequent trumpeters, both by the example of his playing and as a mentor to younger musicians.
Dizzy's first pro job was with the Frank Fairfax orchestra in 1935, after which he joined the respective orchestras of Edgar Hayes and subsequently Teddy Hill, essentially replacing his main influence Roy Eldridge as first trumpet in 1937. In 1939, Gillespie joined up with Cab Calloway's orchestra, with which he recorded one of his earliest compositions, the instrumental "Pickin' The Cabbage", in 1940 (originally released on the Vocalion label, #5467, on 78rpm - said 78rpm record backed with a co-composition with Cab's drummer at the time, Cozy Cole, entitled "Paradiddle"). After Dizzy left Calloway in late 1941, over a notorious incident with a knife, he freelanced with a few bands - most notably being Ella Fitzgerald's orchestra, composed of members of the late Chick Webb's band, in 1942. In 1943, Gillespie then joined up with the Earl Hines orchestra. The legendary big band of Billy Eckstine gave his unusual harmonies a better setting, and it was as a member of Eckstine's band that he was reunited with Parker, after earlier being members of Earl Hines's more conventional band.
With Charlie Parker, Gillespie jammed at famous jazz clubs like Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House, where the first seeds of bebop were planted. Gillespie's compositions like "Groovin' High", "Woody n' You", "Salt Peanuts", and "A Night in Tunisia" sounded radically different, harmonically and rhythmically, than the Swing music popular at the time. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances together was only issued in 2005: a concert in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945. Gillespie taught many of the young musicians on 52nd Street, like Miles Davis and Max Roach, about the new style of jazz. After a lengthy gig at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles, which left most of the audience ambivalent or hostile towards the new music, the band broke up. Unlike Parker, who was content to play in small groups and be an occasional featured soloist in big bands, Gillespie aimed to lead a big band himself; his first attempt to do this came in 1945, but it did not prove a success.
After his work with Parker, Gillespie led other small combos (including ones with Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Lalo Schifrin) and finally put together his first successful big band. He also appeared frequently as a soloist with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. He also headlined the 1946 independently-produced musical revue film Jivin' in Be-Bop.
In 1948 Dizzy was involved in a traffic accident when the bicycle he was riding was bumped by an automobile. He was slightly injured, and found that he could no longer hit the B-flat above high C. He won the case, but the jury only awarded him $1000, in view of his high earnings up to that point.
On March 11, 1952 Gillespie left for France after being invited by Charles Delaunay to play on Salon du Jazz. Gillespie did not have any other commitments during his time in Paris and on his Blue Star sessions and started to assemble his third big band. Due to his prior success he could now record in the finest studios like Théatre des Champs-Elysées. In 1953 he returned to the United States after a series of successful concerts and recordings, and the 1953 line-up of the Dizzy Gillespie/Stan Getz Sextet featured Gillespie, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Max Roach. As well as his work with Getz, he also recorded on a couple of occasions with saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt.
In 1956 he organized a band to go on a State Department tour of the Middle East and earned the nickname "the Ambassador of Jazz".
He died of pancreatic cancer January 6, 1993, aged 75, and was buried in the Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York.