Dizzy was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw,
South Carolina in 1917 to a family of ten. His father, a local
bandleader, encouraged Gillespie's musical progress and made instruments
available to the child early on. At four years old, John was already
playing the piano. He then taught himself to play the trombone but
switched to the trumpet before the age of twelve. He received a music
scholarship to the small agricultural school, the Laurinburg
Institute, Laurinburg, North Carolina.
He left the school in 1935 to pursue a career as a musician, following his idol, Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, the great early bop trumpeter who pioneered black musicianship in a white band. He joined the Frankie Fairfax Band in Philadelphia and soon earned the nickname "Dizzy" for his comical stage antics. In 1937, he took Roy Eldridge's old position in the Teddy Hill Band and made his first recording in Hill's rendition of "King Porter Stomp." After a short stay with the band including a tour through Europe, Dizzy freelanced for a year and found his way to Cab Calloway in 1939. It was with this premier band that Dizzy began to develop a style more his own and less like Roy Eldridge, as you can hear in "Pickin' the Cabbage." Calloway, annoyed by Dizzy's risky style, was not particularly fond of Dizzy and called his solos "Chinese music." Despite this, Dizzy stayed with the band until 1941, when there was an on-stage occurrence that, although resolved, prompted Dizzy to leave the band.
During a concert, a band member shot spitballs at Cab's back when he faced the audience. Cab accused Dizzy of being the culprit and upon Dizzy's vehement denial, the two began to fight. Dizzy grabbed a knife and actually cut Cab. Although the two made up after Jonah Jones and Milt Hinton came forward as the perpetrators, Dizzy was fired. The real legacy of his time in the band would only be realized decades later for, having roomed the whole time with Mario Bauza, Dizzy had begun to take an interest in Afro-Cuban music...
Passing from band to band for the next few years, among which were those led by Ella Fitgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Fess Williams, Les Hite, Claude Hopkins, Lucky Millinder and even the great Duke Ellington for a short while, Dizzy met and began a long friendship with Charlie Parker.
During this transient period, Dizzy began appearing at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House where he could try out his new ideas and styles. Often joining him was Thelonious Monk, another fine native of the Carolinas, and the two began to experiment with the complex chord changes that would soon characterize the Bebop Era...not to mention familiarizing jazz with the black horn-rimmed glasses, beret and goatee that would be just as much a part of the era.
Late in 1942, Dizzy joined the Earl Hines's band with Charlie Parker joined on tenor and the band was the first to explore the bebop style. From this band was born "Night In Tunisia," Dizzy's famous piece that ushered in the Bebop Era.
in Action Parker
After staying with Eckstine a while and recording such notable hits as "Opus X" and "Blowin' The Blues Away", Dizzy again joined up with Coleman Hawkins for several bebop sessions. These early years of bebop were hard on Dizzy because the style was still not completely accepted by mainstream jazz. He led his own band on the ill-fated "Hepsations of 1945" southern tour and went to the West Coast with Parker, only to return to New York early after discouraging turnouts for his gigs.