Dizzy Gillespie , byname of John Birks Gillespie (born Oct. 21, 1917, Cheraw, S.C., U.S.—died Jan. 6, 1993, Englewood, N.J.), American jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader who was one of the seminal figures of the bebop movement.
Gillespie’s father was a bricklayer and amateur bandleader who introduced his son to the basics of several instruments. After his father died in 1927, Gillespie taught himself the trumpet and trombone; for two years he attended the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, where he played in the band and took music classes. His first professional job was in Frankie Fairfax’s band in Philadelphia; his early style showed the strong influences of his idol, trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Gillespie’s penchant for clowning and capriciousness earned him the nickname Dizzy. In 1937 he was hired for Eldridge’s former position in the Teddy Hill Orchestra and made his recording debut on Hill’s version of “King Porter Stomp.”
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, Gillespie played in a number of bands, including those led by Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Billy Eckstine. He also took part in many late-night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, a New York City nightclub, and was among the club’s regulars who pioneered the bebop sound and style (others included Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach). In 1944 the first bebop recording session included Gillespie’s “Woody ’n’ You” and featured Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins. Ultimately, Charlie Parker and Gillespie were regarded as cofounders of the bebop movement; the two worked together in several small groups in the 1940s and early ’50s. Although Parker was easily irritated by Gillespie’s onstage antics, their musical relationship seemed to benefit from their personal friction and their competitive solos were inventive, even inspired.
Gillespie formed his own orchestra in the late 1940s, and it was considered to be one of the finest large jazz ensembles. Noted for complex arrangements and