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Dizzy Gillespie: Jazz & Latin Music


.... and  was the youngest of 9 children. Dizzy's father was a musician & bandleader, so instruments were easily accessible to the Gillespie children. Dizzy began playing piano at age four. By the the time he was 12, he taught himself to play trombone & trumpet. He received a music scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina where he attended for two years before his family moved to Philadelphia. After playing with local bands, Dizzy's big breaks were playing with the Teddy Hill Orchestra and Cab Calloway's band which eventually led to Dizzy having his own big band.


Some jazz history: If you don't know anything about jazz, you should at least know a few jazz icons' names. Here are only a few of the jazz icons Dizzy played with over the years: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, James Moody, Miles Davis & Quincy Jones. Dizzy was an arranger, composer, bandleader, a superb and innovative musician who was also known for his scatting, singing and zany behavior; hence the nickname "Dizzy".


Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie were the creators of BeBop which is known as the “first modern jazz style”. It was not popular in the beginning as it contradicted big band music & swing. Bebop consisted of faster rhythms, different harmonies, a lot of improvisation and touched on Afro-Cuban rhythms. Dizzy was instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban Jazz. The magical combination African & Latin music Dizzy created was often performed with Miriam Makeba, Machito,Tito Puente, Celia Cruz & Arturo Sandoval. These electrifying performances spawned many more performances by other artists under the banner of "Latin Jazz" and "Salsa Meets Jazz".

Family Memories: My cousin Dizzy was older than my father so out of respect for our elders, my brother and I had to address him as "Uncle John". My Dad & Uncle John were very close and he was in my life since I was a baby. Uncle John was on the road a lot so I loved visiting him, (his wife) Aunt Lorraine and their dog Maestro at their home in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Often he had impromptu jam sessions in his basement with a variety of jazz musicians and sometimes my brother Phil was allowed to sit in and play drums with them. Uncle John was always warm, hospitable, charming and funny. When he was on the road he always made time to send us postcards from the foreign & exotic places he performed in. Occasionally he had time to give us a surprise long distance phone call which was always a treat.

Awards & Honors:

Dizzy received several awards and honors, here are just a few:

1972, First jazz musician appointed by the US State Department for cultural tours

1975 & 1991, Grammy award winner

1977, Performed at the White House for President Carter & the Shah of Iran

1978, Performed "Salt Peanuts" with President Carter at the White House Jazz Concert

1979, Autobiography published, "To Be or Not To Bop"

1982, Inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame

1989, National Medal of Arts from President Bush

1989, Grammy Lifetime Achievement

1989, Kennedy Center Honors

1995, Received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

2002, Dedication of Dizzy Gillespie Birthplace Park, South Carolina

2004, Opening of Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center

2014, Inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame

58 Year Discography: his music spans from 1937 - 1995

Some of Dizzy's notably fun accomplishments are:

*The Muppets Show: several appearances in the 70's & 80's

*Sesame Street: performances & voiceovers, 1980s

*Performing on Stevie Wonder's song,"Do I Do"

*Performing on Chaka Khan's remake of Dizzy's song, "Night In Tunisia"

*The Cosby Show: appeared as Vanessa's music teacher

*Introduced to the rap genre by rappers Nice & Smooth on "Hip Hop Junkies". Their incorrect lyrics are: "Hey yo', Dizzy Gillespie plays the sax."... um, no guys he plays the trumpet!!

*And in 1960 Dizzy ran for President of the United States! This was a practical joke, but it looked pretty real with a rally held in Chicago and the sale of "Dizzy for President" buttons. This campaign was a way to raise money for CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and another civil rights organization. "Dizzy Gillespie for President" became the title of his album in 1963. One of Dizzy’s presidential buttons is on display at the new African American Museum of History & Culture.


Trademark Trumpet, Personal Style & Huge Cheeks: Besides his remarkable music, Dizzy is well known for his balloon-like cheeks and his trumpet with the turned up bell. Legend has it that either Dizzy or someone else fell on the trumpet at a party, bending the bell up to a 45 degree angle. Diz liked the sound and continued to play on trumpets with turned up bells. He was also a stylish dude wearing fitted suits, black frame glasses, berets, furs and sported a sharp goatee. As he embraced more African music, his fashion progressed into dashikis, African embroidered suits, African beads and kufis.


As for Dizzy's balloon-like cheeks, this is technically considered a medical condition & was called "Gillespie's Pouches" by a doctor. Not only did Dizzy's cheeks expand greatly when he played, but his neck expanded as well. Don't try this at home kids. The expanded cheeks probably started from playing incorrectly. The correct form for all instruments played by mouth is to keep your cheeks taut. It's been documented that other musicians and balloon artists have this condition which is referred to as "pneumoparotid".


Dizzy's Legacy: Dizzy left this earth on January 6, 1993 at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer. His last days were spent at Englewood Hospital. There is a *DIzzy Gillespie Memorial Fund" at the hospital which pays for a full range of medical & surgical care for jazz musicians who do not have medical insurance. The fund is supported 100% by donations and since 1993 it has provided over 5 million dollars worth of medical services.


Dizzy's music lives on at annual celebrations in his name, on jazz radio, in music classes and his music is still found at most stores that sell CDs. This year, the world will celebrate the 100th birthday of Dizzy Gillespie on October 21st. Many events are scheduled including the annual Dizzy Gillespie Festival in his hometown of Cheraw, South Carolina which will be held in Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Park.


I am campaigning for a U.S. Postage Stamp to be created in Dizzy's honor. In 2015 I started an online petition through Currently we have 1,217 signatures which surpassed our original goal of 1,000 signatures. Please sign the petition via:


In the near future I will be creating a “Dizzy Gillespie Scholarship Fund” with my family.


There is SO MUCH MORE to be said about Dizzy's music, his accomplishments, influences, honorary degrees, civil rights involvement, unique performances and his crazy antics. I hope you learned a little something about him and maybe you have a greater appreciation for jazz, “America's original art form”.

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