NPR logo Dizzy Gillespie On Piano Jazz

Dizzy Gillespie On Piano Jazz

Dizzy Gillespie in Studio on Piano Jazz 1/29/85

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Dizzy Gillespie. Herman Leonard/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Herman Leonard/Courtesy of the artist

Dizzy Gillespie.

Herman Leonard/Courtesy of the artist

Set List

  • "Con Alma" (D. Gillespie)
  • "In a Mellow Tone" (D. Ellington)
  • "On the Alamo" (I. Jones)
  • "Manteca" (D. Gillespie)
  • "Profile of the Diz" (M. McPartland)
  • "Round Midnight" (T. Monk)
  • "Profile of the Diz II" (M. McPartland)
  • "Night in Tunisia" (D. Gillespie)

Trumpeter, composer, and innovator John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was born in Cheraw, S.C., in 1917. His father was a bricklayer and part-time bandleader who died when Dizzy was 10. At age 12, young Gillespie began teaching himself to play trombone and trumpet, later picking up the cornet, as well. His formal musical education began in 1932, when he attended the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina.

By 1935, Gillespie had quit school and moved to Philadelphia, following his family's move from Cheraw. It was in Philadelphia that he began to play professionally with the Frankie Fairfax band. Bandmate Charlie Shavers helped Gillespie by teaching him some of Roy Eldridge's solos, Eldridge being one of Gillespie's early role models. During his time with Fairfax, Gillespie earned his nickname — a reference to his sense of humor and tendency to clown around (or act "dizzy").

In 1937, Gillespie moved to New York, where he played with many groups until he landed a job with Teddy Hill's big band, filling the vacancy left by none other than Eldridge. Through 1940, Gillespie worked with a number of small groups and big bands, most notably Cab Calloway's. His friendship with one of Calloway's other players, Mario Bauza, sparked an interest in Afro-Cuban music that was to become one of Gillespie's lifelong fascinations.

Between 1939 and 1944, Gillespie began to shape a different sound for himself, relying less on his ability to technically imitate his musical idols. While in Kansas City on tour in 1940, he met Charlie Parker and soon found himself playing after-hours jam sessions with Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke. Together, they experimented with increasingly complex music, slowly developing a style which became known as "bop."

After leaving Calloway's band in 1941, Gillespie played with a succession of leaders, including Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnet, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Lucky Millinder, Charles Hite, and Earl Hines. In the winter of 1943-44, he and Charlie Parker cut some of the first small-group bop recordings, including "Salt Peanuts" and "Hot House."

From the mid-'40s through 1950, Gillespie led two big bands and a number of smaller ensembles, playing at times with James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, and John Lewis. It was during 1953 that an accident left him with a bent trumpet, with the bell pointing upward from the body of the instrument at about 45 degrees. Gillespie decided he liked the sound, and began to have instruments made for him that way — a visual trademark he kept for the rest of his life.

While Gillespie was considered a musical radical in the 1940s and early '50s, the wide acceptance of the bop sound he pioneered with Charlie Parker eventually led to his being accepted an elder statesman of jazz. He remained an outgoing and tireless ambassador for bop throughout his life. Dizzy Gillespie died in Englewood, N.J., in 1993.

Originally recorded Jan. 29, 1985.