Dizzy Gillespie: Remembering a Jazz Legend

The brilliant and innovative trumpeter—who would have turned 96 today—changed jazz forever

  • Share
  • Read Later
Redferns / Getty Images

Dizzy Gillespie; performing live onstage at the Nice Jazz Festival, Jan. 1, 1980

It may be difficult to comprehend just how radical Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet playing must have sounded when he came to wider public notice in 1945 only because the unconventional notions that he brought to jazz horn playing — and to jazz itself — have become so ingrained in the music to this day. Dizzy — born John Birks Gillespie on October 21, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina — played faster, higher, and with more aggressive energy, melodic daring and rhythmic invention than any trumpeter yet heard; his only instrumental peer being Charlie Parker, the brilliant saxophonist with whom Gillespie formalized the revolutionary jazz style, Bebop.

During bebop’s formative period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gillespie became an apostle for the innovative music, his superb playing, composing and band leading capabilities providing a model for a new generation of jazz musicians. Expanding his horizons to incorporate musical idioms from Cuba, the Caribbean and South America, Gillespie could also lay claim to being one of the first and most important champions of so-called “world music.” Significant figures who played in Gillespie ensembles during his six-decade career as a bandleader include John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Milt Jackson, James Moody, Chano Pozo, Phil Woods and Kenny Barron, among many others.

Possibly the most astonishing element of Gillespie’s musical life was his ability to communicate so immediately, and with such infectious humor and passion, with a broad-based international audience without ever seriously diluting his multifaceted art. Although notably recognized for his signature visual clues — the beret and goatee he sported in the 1940s; the trumpet with the upturned bell he began playing in the 1950s; his enlarged, balloon-like cheek pockets that formed when he blew his horn; and cherished for his onstage clowning and dancing — for the jazz community and devoted listeners around the world,

Gillespie’s extraordinary musicianship was always the main event. His death 20 years ago, on January 6, 1993, marked the end of an era. When it comes to that rare personal combination of musical excellence and undeniable charisma, we have yet to see Dizzy’s like since.

VIEW: Dizzy Gillespie: Rare and Classic Portraits of a Playful Genius

Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, “Hot House”

The two avatars of Bebop are captured in their only filmed appearance, from 1952 –three year’s before Parker’s death.


Dizzy Gillespie, “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam” 

Gillespie, a great entertainer as well as an incredible musician, leads an edition of his prime-era, late 1940s Bebop big band.


Dizzy Gillespie & Louis Armstrong (1959)

Two incomparable jazz innovators meet to have some fun. Of Louis, Dizzy wisely acknowledged: “No him, no me.”


Dizzy Gillespie’s Dream Band, “Manteca”

As an older musician, Gillespie continued to command the respect of his peers, as well as younger players influenced by him. This clip finds him and a handpicked band tearing through one of Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban classics.