Born: Oct. 21, 1917
Died: Jan. 6, 1993
Background/significance: One of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and his trademark puffed-up cheeks helped usher in the era of bebop in the early 1940s. But it was the trumpet virtuoso’s huge variety of facial expressions and comical stage antics that earned him his nickname and made him a favorite of audiences around the world.
The son of a brick mason and weekend bandleader, Gillespie taught himself to play trombone and trumpet by the age of 12. He attended Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina for three years on a musical scholarship before moving to Philadelphia to pursue a career as a musician. In 1937, he took the place of his idol, Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge, in the Teddy Hill Band, eventually landing a spot with the Cab Calloway Orchestra.
During his stint with the famed band, he was introduced to Mario Bauza, the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz. Gillespie went on to fuse Afro-American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms to create his own CuBop sound.
As bebop became more accepted, Gillespie rose to prominence. He worked with a number of big-name band leaders, including Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, and had his own bop band at several points in his career.
In 1953, someone accidentally fell on his trumpet, bending the bell back. Gillespie discovered he liked the sound and from then on, he had trumpets built for him with the bell pointing upward at a 45-degree angle. The upturned trumpet became his trademark.
Gillespie was the first jazz artist appointed a cultural ambassador by the Department of State to tour the Near East, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America on behalf of the United States. Thirty years later, he returned proudly to his roots, embarking on a groundbreaking tour of Africa.
Over the years, Gillespie received dozens of awards and honors, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of Arts.
South Carolina connection: Gillespie was born in Cheraw, the youngest of nine children. As a young boy, he often danced for money at the Chiquora Club dances. At the time, he was the only black allowed inside the building, which still stands today behind the Cheraw Town Hall. While he was a student at Robert Smalls School, he performed in his first public concert as part of his teacher’s minstrel shows.
His first paid gig was a “white” Cheraw High School dance. He also performed in the town’s Masonic Hall, as well as in surrounding towns.
On the 85th anniversary of Gillespie’s birth, the town of Cheraw dedicated a seven-foot bronze statue of their most famous son playing his trademark bent horn on the Town Green.
Discover more: At the Gillespie Home Site Park in Cheraw, you’ll find a South Carolina Historic Marker honoring the musician, along with a stainless steel fence depicting the notes to “Salt Peanuts,” one of Gillespie’s best-known works.
You can pick up a brochure of sites associated with Gillespie’s life in his hometown at the Cheraw Chamber of Commerce. You’ll also find a small “Dizzy” display in the Cheraw Lyceum Museum on the Town Green. To visit Gillespie’s official website, click here.