On October 21,1917,John Birks Gillespie was born in Cheraw,South Carolina. He was the youngest of 14 childern.
His father was a poor farmer and a skilled amateur musician. He played bass in his own band and owned all the instruments because most of the other players were so poor that they would sell the instruments for money to buy food if they had them. The town of Cheraw was primarily black town and was very poor. By the time John was 7,he was beginning to learn that noone would take care of him,and that the world was harsh. John looked back on his father as a disciplinarian,others just reguarded him as mean. He would come home and beat his children every week for”what they must’ve done while he wasgone”.
As a child,John became fascinated with misic and played trombone inhis band. One day his neighbor got a trumpet for christmas. He begged to tryit when it wasn’t in use. When he was 17,he had earned enough money from his job that he could move 50 miles north and live in a school dorm while he got aneaducation. He missed his family,and was having a hard time.
He had to be ina club similar to 4h to pay tuition. He hated it. He was anxious to leave theschool and make a living on his own. When his sister got married,he heardthat her husband was moving them to New York city. He went with them tofind a job.
His brother Wesley soon moved there as well,so he and John livedin the same apartment. They shared expenses,but rarely saw each other. Wesley’s schedule was a normal one,but John’s often had him staggering home at 5:50 A. M. He was always searching for a permanent job,but all he could find were temp and fill-in jobs,which payed very little.
. Meanwhile,he was barely getting by. Since he was a child,his idol was a trumpet player named Roy Eldridge. Johnwas thrilled to meet and finally replace him in the Cab Calloway band. Heplayed 3rd trumpet,but was mainly an arranger for the band. Back then,arrangers would often hand-write parts so they didn’t have to pay aprinter.
One day the band was reading a chart and john couldn’t read themisic. The band started calling him the Dizzy cat because he couldn’t readthe parts. On a gig one time,he was late and the director said”Where’sDizzy?!?”. The audiance laughed. The band decided that the name wouldstick. Dizzy was having a hard time in the Calloway band.
Most of theother,more experienced players didn’t like him. While they were touringeurope,the other players were saying that he was losing his”chopps”(skill),and prevented him from getting other jobs. They werethought to be jealous of his growing skill as both a player and as a“player”. He would often be seen after show kissing passionatley with a newwoman every show. They were often white,so he also had to fight off a lot ofjealous boyfriends.
Because of this,he ALWAYS carried a knife withhim. This habit has lead to one of the most infamous stories in jazz history. One night,Dizzy was playing with the bannd and was taking a solo. During the solo,the drummer had lost the beat. Dizzy stopped,and held his nose which was a sign of ridicule and disrespect to a musician.
The audiance laughed. When Dizzy went back to his section, a 19 year old player was overcome with the mood of the whole situation. He began to rip pieces off his misic and shoot spitballs at the drummer. This continued for the whole show,until one of the spitballs flew righ in front of Cab’s face.
He immediately turned and pointed at Dizzy and said”YOU,THROWING THE SPITBALLS!”. He was surprised and said “hey,I ain’t throwin nuthin’. ”Cab became enraged and began to climb over the saxaphone section to get at Dizzy. He then ran back to his dressing room for the rest of the show. WhenDizzy thought everything had calmed down,he proceeded to go and get histhings from the stage.
As he passed Cab’s room,Cab opened the door andgrabbed Dizzy by the throat. Dizzy,being aggresive and hardened by theconstant harassment from white men on the street,instinctivly took out theknife he was hiding in a rabbit’s foot and stabbed Calloway in the butt. Hehad to get 68 stitched in his rear,and fired Dizzy from the band. Yearslater,Cab found out that Dizzy hadn’t thrown the spitballs,and apologized. As Dizzy was searching for a new job,he met the most influential person inhis life,Charlie Parker.
They worked together for many years working toperfect a new style of music that was known as “bop”. Though he lovedworking with Parker,it was hard because he had a drug addiction. His hornwas often in the pawnshop to buy drug money. As bop(or be-bop,as it was also known) began to grow in popularity,Dizzy was beginning to become the most emulated player in theworld. He was always searching for a new way of doing things. But Parker’s addiction was becoming too much to bear.
Dizzy’s wife,Lorraine,urged him to leave until Parker became sober. When he left,Miles Davis took his spot in the band. It was then that a huge rivalry to began between Miles and Dizzy. But he was too worried to care.
He was still having a hard timegetting by financially. But he had made an interesying discovery. One daysomeone fell on his trumpet,bending the bell upwards. He liked the was itsounded,because”I can hear the notes faster”.
His popularity was growinginto the mainstream,and soon he was an international celebrity. But it wasthen that Parker’s addiction had finally killed him. It was a great period ofmourning in his life. It was a long time for him to get back together andcontinue with his life. It soon became a sort of depression for jazz musicians,because rock music was becoming very popular. Many young musicians abanodned jazz to follow the crowd.
But too many people were getting hurt at rock concerts for many parents to consider it for thier kids. Although jazz was losingpopularity,Dizzy wasn,t. Right in to the 70’s he remained an internationalcelebrity. He was mobbed by crowd’s in every country that he visited. This continued until his late 60’s,when his appetite was getting to be so bigthat it was worrying his wife. She sent him to a docter to be diagnosed.
Thedoctor said that he had cancer. But all during this time,colleges wereconstantly giving honorary awards and degrees. The news of his death onJanuary 6,1993 was a shock to everyone. His funeral was attended bt over10,000 and memorial concert’s were held be Wynton Marsalis,Jon Faddis,Arturo Sandoval,and Maynard Fergeson. He had no children,but in memorials it was commented”we are all your childern”.
I still believe that,because he was the father of modern misic. If there was no bop,then there would be no Rock, grunge, reggae, fusion, rap or anything else that cameafter it. Bop was the bridge to what we have now. Thank Dizzy for that.