With his great ballooning cheeks and trademark
trumpet's bell upturned at a 45-degree angle,
Dizzy Gillespie easily has the most recognizable
face in jazz. He is also easily one of the most
influential figures in that most American of
musical forms, having first revolutionized jazz
in the 40s by being one of the acknowledged
inventors of bebop; and then again in the
decades that followed when he championed the
rich rhythms of Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and
Brazilian music that, to a large extent, still
dominate jazz to this very day.
Born John Birks Gillespie, Dizzy moved to
Philadelphia with his family at age 18 and
joined Frankie Fairfax's band before moving on
to New York City and Teddy Hill's big band in
1937, Later he played with all the greats--Ella
Fitzgerald. Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Earl
Hines, and Billie Holliday. He met saxophonist
Charlie "Bird" Parker in 1940 and soon was
jamming with Parker, Thelonious Monk, and
others. It was in this hothouse atmosphere of
creativity that Gillespie and his cohorts
astonished the world with their aggressive
ornamentations, complex harmonic alterations,
and rhythmic exploration that would soon be
labeled "bebop." "What they did was like
nitroglycerine, electricity," says Quincy Jones.
"They broke all the rules, changed the world
concert of American music."
Not all audiences and critics fell immediately
in love with these new, often strange sounds.
Gillespie, however, was a natural public
relations man for this music with his
hair-raising technical virtuosity, harmonic
adventurousness, and most of all, integrating
showmanship. He was, in fact, the first jazz
artist to be sent abroad under the auspices of
the United States government, spreading American
goodwill and good music around the world.
Gillespie's legacy is probably best summed up by
Gillespie himself in a statement that would
sound a bit arrogant if it weren't so probable:
"The music of Charlie Parker and me laid a
foundation for all the music that is being
played now... Our music is going to be the
classical music of the future."
And just how did Gillespie end up with that
bizarre, trademark trumpet of his? The bent-bell
trumpet got its start in 1953 when someone fell
on his trumpet stand backstage; Gillespie liked
the sound of the altered instrument so much that
his trumpets were specially made from then on.