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Picture of John Birks 'Dizzy' Gillespie
John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie: Biography

Dizzy Gillespie was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917 to a family of 10. At four, Gillespie was playing the piano. He taught himself to play trombone, then switched to trumpet at age 12.

Gillespie received a music scholarship to the Laurinberg Institute in Laurinberg, North Carolina. Following his idol, Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, the great early bop trumpeter, Gillespie left the school in 1935 to pursue a musical career. He joined the Frankie Fairfax Band in Philadelphia and earned the nickname Dizzy for his comical stage performances.

After touring Europe with Frankie Fairfax, Gillespie met Cab Calloway in 1939, began performing in his band, and developed a musical style of his own. After a misunderstanding that led to an on-stage fight with Calloway in 1941, Gillespie was fired.

Gillespie's roommate, Afro-Cuban musical great Mario Bauza, helped cultivate his interest in the Afro-Cuban jazz genre. In the early 1940s, Gillespie would play with bands led by jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. He began appearing, often with fellow artist Thelonious Monk, at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. In late 1942, Gillespie joined Earl Hines' band with Charlie Parker on tenor sax; the band was the first to explore the bebop style, which gave birth to Gillespie's famous piece "Night in Tunisia."

Later, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan joined Billy Eckstine to form the first bebop big band, with which hits such as "Opus X:" and "Blowin' the Blues Away" were recorded. In 1953, someone accidentally fell on his trumpet and bent the bell back. He liked the sound of his bent trumpet so much, from that point on he had trumpets built with the bell pointing up 45 degrees.

Fueled by his prominence as one of bebop's stars, Gillespie began to collaborate with his old friend, Mario Bauza and artist Chano Pozo, with whom he composed the duet "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" in collaboration with George Russell. Passion for Afro-Cuban jazz also led to numerous collaborations with Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, whom he called "my first son."

Dizzy Gillespie's outgoing personality, sense of humor and unique style endeared him to audiences worldwide, cementing his legend as an elder statesman of jazz. He died of pancreatic cancer in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1993.

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