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Black History Month: Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie

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As we make our way through Black History Month, we continue our intermittent series of profiles of African-American South Carolinians. Today we look at jazz great Dizzy Gillespie.

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993) was born in Cheraw, S.C. on October 21, 1917. The last of nine children, Gillespie’s father was unusually strict with him. When Gillespie was 10, his father died leaving the family in terrible financial straits.

Around the time of his father’s death, Gillespie was introduced to music by his English teacher. Starting originally on the trombone, he switched to the trumpet and fell in love with it. Over the next few years, he played with local bands before both black and white audiences. In the 1930s, his family moved to Philadelphia.

From 1935-37, he played with various bands in Philadelphia and picked up his nickname, “Dizzy” for his outrageous and funny behavior. In 1937, he moved to New York and quickly made a name for himself among New York musicians playing in bands withTeddy Hill, Cab Calloway and Earl “Fatha” Hines.

While with the Hines band, Gillespie teamed up with Charlie “Bird” Parker(1920-1955), another jazz legend, and the two of them came up with a new form of jazz called“bebop." In 1952, Gillespie formed his own group to play at the newly-opened Onyx Club on 52nd street in New York City. It was this occasion, according to Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be or Not To Bop, that gave birth to the “bebop” era.

Gillespie went on to a career that lasted until shortly before his death in 1993. In 1989, at the age of 72, he gave 300 performances in 27 countries. He also cut four albums and appeared on three television specials. The following year, at the Kennedy Center celebration of 100 years of American jazz, Gillespie received the Duke Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for 50 years of achievement.

Gillespie’s last public appearance was in Seattle in February, 1992. He died in his sleep of pancreatic cancer at his home in Englewood, N.J. on October 6, 1993.There is a statue of Gillespie in his hometown of Cheraw.

Source: Notable biographies.com

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