100 Jazz Profiles
1917 - 1993
Trumpeter. When Dizzy Gillespie was in his prime in the mid-1940s, he pushed the technical limits of the trumpet further than any player before him, in terms of range, speed and agility. Linked to his pioneering work with Charlie Parker in developing the style of modern jazz known as bebop, he became as influential a figure on jazz as fellow trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge had been before him, and he paved the way for his one-time protege Miles Davis to follow after him.
Gillespie was born in poverty in the Deep South, but won a music scholarship to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where - although he was largely self-taught - he developed the beginnings of his famous technique. He moved to Frankie Fairfax's band in Philadelphia, and then joined Teddy Hill in New York, travelling to Europe with Hill in 1937. Two years later he joined Cab Calloway's band, and became featured trumpeter in the highest-earning black orchestra of the time.
He left after a fight with Calloway, and in between leading his own small groups, worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine before forming a quintet with Charlie Parker in 1945 that made some of the first bebop discs. The same year Gillespie put together his first big band, and unlike Parker, devoted the rest of the 1940s to writing and playing some of the most demanding big band music of the era.
The large group broke up in 1950, but Gillespie still put together occasional big bands during the next four decades, including a group which toured internationally for the US State Department in the mid-1950s. With arranger Lalo Schifrin he also recorded some dramatic pieces for trumpet and big band including the suite Gillespiana. For the most part, he led his own quintet for forty years, bringing the sounds of bebop and his own joyous trumpet to audiences all over the world.
He toured incessantly and appeared at every major festival and club in the world, becoming an ambassador and father figure for jazz. His conversion to Ba'hai brought with it a spiritual calm, and he espoused the cause of peace and integration - nowhere better exemplified than in his final big band, the United Nation Orchestra, which brought together creative jazz players from every part of the world.
Alyn Shipton: Groovin High - The Life Of Dizzy Gillespie (New York, Oxford University Press) 1999
Live at the Royal Festival Hall, 1987 (BBC Jazz Legends, BBCJ 7002-2)
Suggested track: Round Midnight
Dizzy at Down Beat
Biography with links and discography
on radio 3
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