With his trademark ballooned cheeks and upturned trumpet's bell, Dizzy Gillespie was a true original. He is one of - if not the - best jazz trumpeters of all time, whose impact on the genre is immeasurable. Also a charismatic band leader, gifted composer and arranger, and enthusiastic scat singer, Gillespie ushered in the bebop era of the 1940s that sounded the beginning of modern jazz. The influential artist continued to promote the movement well into his 70s as a mentor for emerging musicians.
The youngest of nine children, John Birks Gillespie was born in the small town of Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917. His father, James, was a bricklayer, pianist and bandleader who kept a selection of his instruments at home. Surrounded by sparkling brass, Gillespie taught himself to play the trombone as a child, switching to the trumpet at age 12. At 18, he followed his family to Philadelphia, where he started playing with Frankie Fairfax's band and earned the nickname "Dizzy" for his zany demeanour onstage.
In 1937, Gillespie headed to New York City and joined Teddy Hill's orchestra, taking the spot formerly filled by his idol Roy Eldridge. The trumpeter made his recording debut with King Porter Stomp and toured Europe with Hill's ensemble before setting out on his own. That same year, he met his future wife, Lorraine, a chorus dancer at the Apollo Theater, with whom he remained until his death.
In the early 1940s, the restless trumpeter performed with an impressive roster of musicians: Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. In 1942, he composed what was to become one of his signature pieces, A Night in Tunisia, considered today as a jazz standard for its unique, oscillating half-chord changes.
In 1943, Gillespie joined singer Billy Eckstine's newly formed band, which also included saxophonist Charlie Parker and singer Sarah Vaughan. It wasn't until two years later, however, that the trumpeter's career really took off.
In 1945, Gillespie and Parker teamed up for a pioneering series of recordings, including Groovin' High, I Can't Get Started, Hot House, Shaw Nuff and Salt Peanuts, which introduced swing fans to the complex harmonies and rhythmic explorations of bebop. The two musicians headed to the West Coast for an extended gig in Los Angeles. However, their frenzied new sound proved too radical for most listeners and Gillespie returned to New York.
The following year, the trumpeter assembled a big band (including the future founding members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as a young John Coltrane), which stayed together until 1950. He also invited Cuban multi-instrumentalist Chanzo Pozo to play conga drums, making Gillespie one of the first jazz musicians to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythms into his work on tracks such as Manteca and Tin Tin Deo.
By then, Gillespie was not only the sound but also the face of the spirited and rebellious bebop movement, sporting a beret, goatee and black horn rim glasses - and armed with his signature upturned trumpet, which was first bent by accident in 1953, supposedly improving its sound and inspiring the iconic trumpeter to alter it from thereon.
During the 1950s, Gillespie reunited with his former collaborators, such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, on a series of seminal recordings.
In 1956, he was asked by the State Department to form a big band and tour overseas, giving him the moniker "Ambassador of Jazz." The ensemble visited the Middle East, Europe and South America for the next two years, spreading American goodwill and good music, before dissolving in 1958.
The brass virtuoso made his first visit to the Festival for its second edition in 1981. Five years later, he headlined the closing concert. In 1988, Gillespie returned for the third and final time, performing with his 10-member big band, United Nation Orchestra.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the prolific artist received an outpouring of awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement and France's prestigious Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In November 1992, Carnegie Hall held a 75th birthday tribute concert for Gillespie, although he was too sick to attend. Two months later, he passed away from pancreatic cancer in Englewood, New Jersey.