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  • Southern Reverie

Dizzy Gillespie: The Sound of Surprise

John Birks Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on October 21, 1917. He was the last of nine children born to John and Lottie Gillespie. His father a bricklayer by trade but was a local bandleader so music and instruments were part of the childrens’ lives. Gillespie’s family life was troubled with a strict and abusive father who died when he was ten years old, leaving the family destitute.

Dizzy Gillespie Statue in Cheraw, South Carolina
Statue of Dizzy Gillespie on the Town Green in Cheraw, South Carolina where he was born.

Musically gifted early on, John learned to play the piano at age four and taught himself trombone and trumpet by at age twelve. He won a music scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina and attended two years before moving to Philadelphia with his family. His first professional music job was with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra in 1935 at age eighteen. On one of his gigs in Washington, D.C., Gillespie met a young dancer named Lorraine Willis. They were married in 1940 until his death in 1993. It was during his time with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra that he earned his nickname “Dizzy” for his mischieveous and funny behavior.

In 1953 at a party for his wife Lorraine, held at Snookie's in Manhattan, his trumpet bell was bent in an accident when two dancers fell on it. He liked the sound so much he had one made with a 45 degree raised bell and this became one of his trademarks.

Gillespie had a brief political career when he put himself forward as an independent write-in candidate in the 1964 United States presidential campaign. He campaign promises includes renaming the White House, the Blues House and composing a cabinet made up of jazz and blues greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong. His running mate was Phyllis Diller. Campaign buttons with "Dizzy Gillespie for President" became a collector's item. Today, Dizzy Gillespie is remembered as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all times. By 1937 he was working on his own style of music. His lifetime journey through music led him to revolutionize jazz by creating and infusing bebop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He was known for his beret, scat singing, bent horn, pouched cheeks, and his light-hearted personality. These became prominent symbols for bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie has been described as the “sound of surprise.” The Rough Guide to Jazz said this: “Gillespie's magnificent sense of time and emotional intensity of his playing came from childhood roots. His parents were Methodists, but as a boy he used to sneak off every Sunday to the uninhibited Sanctified Church which he said had deep significance for him musically and taught him all about how music can transport people.” Gillespie was invited to perform at the White House by eight presidents and received the National Medal of Arts.

Dizzy Gillespie with trumpet in 1955
Dizzy Gillespie in 1955


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