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Black History NJ: Dizzy Gillespie

Musician John Birks — aka Dizzy — Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina, on October 21, 1917. He was the youngest of nine children born to an amateur Chesterfield County bandleader. What’s his connection to New Jersey, you ask? Gillespie spend the latter part of his life living in NJ. But more on that later.

Dizzy Gillespie loved music from an early age, developing his musical talent early-on as well. Due to his father’s work, Gillespie always had easy access to instruments. He began playing piano at four years old, then moved onto the trombone and the trumpet in his preteen years. While teaching himself how to play the trumpet, Dizzy dreamed of emulating his idol, jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge.


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And all that Jazz

In the late 1920s, Gillespie joined a band and took music lessons at Laurinburg Institute. After his father’s death, however, Dizzy Gillespie and his family moved to Philadelphia. After his 18th birthday he began performing professionally, joining the Frankie Fairfax Orchestra.

Gillespie posing for photo with his trumpetBut his time with Frankie Fairfax didn’t last; he decided to relocate to New York City, where he earned the nickname “Dizzy” for his jesting and quirkiness.

In 1937, Dizzy Gillespie appeared on his first record. In fact, he did so as the trumpeter for the Teddy Hill Orchestra, a band formerly featuring his idol, Eldridge. Throughout the next decade, he worked with a number of renowned acts; for example, musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, and Duke Ellington.

In addition to his success as a trumpeter, Gillespie is credited for developing the “bebop” music genre. This style of jazz utilizes complex chord progressions with a fast tempo. In short, his key harmonic innovations helped shape the genre of bebop. Over the course of his career, he drew influences from Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and Brazilian music; moreover, he was the first jazz musician to blend those rhythms with his genre.

In the late 1940s, Gillespie created his own jazz orchestra. This required recruiting distinguished musicians, and making music that featured Gillespie’s signature complexity. But by this point, his musical career would go on to mostly consist of playing in small groups.

Dizzy Gillespie Runs for President

Dizzy Gillespie famously ran for president as an independent write-in candidate during the 1964 US election. He jokingly vowed to rename the White House to the “Blues House” should he be elected. Likewise, he kidded his cabinet would consist of Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and other musicians.

In the mid-1960s, Gillespie settled down in Englewood, Bergen County, with his wife of more than 20 years. Later on, during the ’80s, he led the United Nation Orchestra. Unfortunately, in 1991, he cut his 56-year touring career short due to medical issues. It was later determined that Gillespie was suffering from pancreatic cancer.

In November 1992, Dizzy Gillespie was given a 75th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Although Gillespie was unable to attend the affair, Carnegie Hall memorialized that day as a tribute to the jazz legend. Sadly, Gillespie succumbed to his illness several months later, passing away on January 6, 1993.

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Other Photo Courtesy: Roland Godefroy / Wikimedia Commons
Van Vechten Photographs / Wikimedia Commons

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