“The late American jazz legend, Dizzy Gillespie, is awarded the Polar Music Prize 1993. The Award Committee’s motivation is as follows: Closely familiar with the origins and roots of jazz, and perceiving its fertile development out of a variety of musical cultures, Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, almost half a century ago, as a revolutionary innovator.”

Chapter: To be or not to bop

To be or not...to bop

The headline is typical of Dizzy Gillespie. It is the title of his autobiography, published in 1979. Dizzy Gillespie was a funny man, of great wit and with a strong sense of humour. Sadly, he died only four and a half months before the Polar Music Prize ceremony in 1993, on January 6, at the age of 75.

Dizzy Gillespie, photographed by William P. Gottlieb for Down Beat magazine, May 1947.

His contributions to jazz were huge. He was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, some would say the best. In the 1940s, together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz. He was a virtuoso and an improviser, coming out of Swing, building on the style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. He taught many of the young musicians on 52nd Street in the late ‘40s, including Miles Davis and Max Roach, about the new style of jazz.

52nd Street, New York. Picture from May 1948 by jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006). Many of the jazz clubs in 52nd Street headlined bebop musicians at this time. (Photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)
Album cover, The Giant, Dizzy Gillespie live in Paris, 1973 (Photo: America/Accord/Universal Music France)
Original album cover of Bird and Diz, with Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, released 1952 (Photo: Clef/Verve/Universal Music Group)
Bronze statue of Dizzy Gillespie by sculptor Ed Dwight, set up in 2002 in Gillespie's birthtown Cheraw, South Carolina (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

"I'm Dizzy Gillespie of Cheraw, South Carolina" 

With this phrase Dizzy Gillespie often introduced himself at concerts around the world. Cheraw is where he is from – a small town of 3,500 inhabitants in rural South Carolina. John Birks Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917, as the ninth and last child of James and Lottie Gillespie.

The Town Hall of Cheraw, South Carolina (built 1858). In the 1920’s it was the town office and opera house, with the Masonic ballroom upstairs where John Birks Gillespie performed as a young boy. As a very little boy he often danced for money at the Chiquora Club dances, where he was the only black allowed in. That building is right behind the town hall.

His father was a brick mason and a local bandleader. They lived in poverty, but instruments were made available to Dizzy as a child. He started to play the piano at age four. His father died when he was only ten. At twelve he taught himself to play the trombone as well as the trumpet. He showed great talent with the trumpet, played with local bands and dreamed of becoming a jazz musician listening to Teddy Hill’s orchestra and Roy Eldridge on NBC national radio.

Two early recordings with Roy Eldridge, whose trumpet playing on national radio inspired Dizzy to become a jazz musician.

Countryside, Philadelphia, New York

In 1933, at the age of sixteen, John Birks Gillespie graduated from Robert Smalls school in his home town. He won a scholarship to Laurinburg Institute, an African American preparatory school in North Carolina, because of his musical talent. They needed a new trumpet player.


At school he learned about agriculture and played in the band. He also learned to read and write music from his roommate and musical companion Norman Powe, also from Cheraw, S.C. Dizzy dropped out of school in 1935 before finishing and moved in with his family who were then living in Philadephia. It wasn’t long until he played with the Frank Fairfax Orchestra, where he got his nickname “Dizzy”. He then went on to join Edgar Haye’s Orchestra and eventually, in 1937, started playing in Teddy Hill’s band in New York, replacing Roy Eldridge as first trumpet.

"King Porter Stomp" with Teddy Hill & His Orchestra, featuring Dizzy Gillespie in his first ever recording, on May 17, 1937
Teddy Hill & His Orchestra, a collection of the 26 recordings the band did 1935-1937. Roy Eldridge plays trumpet on the early tracks, Gillespie makes his recording debut on track 25, Jerry Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp". (Photo: EPM Musique)
Chapter: Early recordings

Early recordings, from swing...

Dizzy stayed with Teddy Hill’s band for a year and toured Europe. After freelancing for a year he joined Cab Calloway’s orchestra (1939-1941), recording frequently, developing his style and starting to compose, also for other bandleaders like Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1940 he married Lorraine Willis, who worked as a chorus dancer at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, with whom he lived for the rest of his life.

Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie at The Famous Door in New York, 1946. William P. Gottlieb Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was fired from Calloway’s band after a row late 1941. Calloway didn’t like Gillespie’s mischievous humour or adventuresome solos. He called it “Chinese music”. By then he had met Charlie Parker, who confirmed the validity of his musical search. During 1941-1943 he passed through many bands, including those led by Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Lucky Millinder and Duke Ellington.

...to Bebop and Afro-cuban

In late 1942, Dizzy Gillespie joined Earl Hines’ big band, as did Charlie Parker on tenor saxophone. They were the first band to explore early bebop – a style characterized by fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation based on the combination of harmonic structure and melody. But the band never recorded. By then, Gillespie had his style together and wrote his most famous song “A Night in Tunisia,” which displayed Afro-Cuban rhythms. 1945 was the breakthrough year, Gillespie teamed up with Charlie Parker on records. Their recordings of “Salt Peanuts,” “Shaw Nuff,” “Groovin’ High” and “Hot House” confused swing fans who had never heard such advanced music. The following year Gillespie put together an orchestra which survived for nearly four years, making songs like “Manteca,” “Things to Come” and “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop” – music that started an Afro-Cuban movement in jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie's first and early recordings, 1937-1944
The Complete RCA Victor Recordings with Dizzy Gillespie, 1937-1949, released in 1995. (Photo: Bluebird RCA/Sony Music)
Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Mary Lou Williams and Milt Orent in William's apartment, ca. August 1947. (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Ella Fizgerald and Dizzy Gillespie at Downbeat, New York, September 1947 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Groundbreaking Gillespie recordings, 1945-1950
Chapter: Fifties

Fifties... and the bent trumpet

Dizzy Gillespie popularized bebop and became a symbol of the new music in the late ‘40s. By 1950, the hype ended, and he was forced, due to economic pressures, to break up his orchestra. He had occasional reunions with Charlie Parker up until Bird’s death in 1955, he toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic and headed all-star recording sessions. In 1956 he was authorized to form a big band and play a tour overseas sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was successful and more world tours followed. By then he had his visual trademark, the “bent” trumpet. It was the result of an accidental damage caused by two dancers falling onto it while it was at a trumpet stand on a stage in January 1953. The bell bent upwards altered the tone of the instrument. Gillespie liked the effect. He had the trumpet straightened out the next day, but he couldn’t forget the tone. So he sent a request to Martin Committee to make him a “bent” trumpet from a sketch his wife made. From that time onward he played a trumpet with an upturned bell.


Have trumpet, will excite! (1959) (Photo: © Verve)
Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker perform "Hot House" in 1952
Chapter: Sixties


In 1960, Gillespie was inducted into Down Beat magazine’s Jazz Hall of Fame. During the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign, Gillespie, with tongue in cheek, put himself forward as an independent candidate. He promised that if he was elected, the White House would be renamed “The Blues House,” his cabinet would be Duke Ellington (Secretary of State), Miles Davis (Director of the CIA), Max Roach (Secretary of Defence), Charles Mingus (Secretary of Peace), Ray Charles (Librarian of Congress), Louis Armstrong (Secretary of Agriculture), Mary Lou Williams (Ambassador to the Vatican), Thelonius Monk (Travelling Ambassador) and Malcolm X (Attorney General). Campaign buttons had been manufactured years ago by his booking agency, “for publicity, as a gag.” Now, proceeds from them went to benefit the Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr.

Gillespie, live at the BBC, 1964
"Things to Come" with Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Big Band, live, 1968
Dizzy Gillespie sextet, "The Champ", live at Montreux Jazz, 1977
Chapter: Faith and memoirs

Faith and memoirs

In 1970, Dizzy Gillespie turned to the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. In the Bahá’í Faith, religious history has unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time. These messengers have included Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others. According to the Bahá’í Faith, the need of the present time is for the gradual establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale.


According to author Nat Hentoff, who knew Gillespie for forty years, his faith helped him to make sense of his position in a succession of trumpeters as well as turning his life from knife-carrying rough-neck to global citizen, and from alcohol to soul force. In 1979 Gillespie released his autobiography To Be or Not… to Bop, where he tells the story of his life and of black American music history.

Book cover of Dizzy Gillespie’s memoirs; To Be, or Not… to Bop, released in 1979. University of Minnesota press
Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, the album where Dizzy Gillespie once again, 25 years later, meets Machito's orchestra and musical director Mario Bauza, released in 1975 (Photo: Original Jazz Classics/Pablo/Universal)
Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation's Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall, London 1989
Chapter: Eighties


During the 1980s Gillespie remained a world traveller. He led the United Nation Orchestra and continued to be an inspiration and teacher to younger players. In 1989 he gave 300 performances in 27 countries, headlined three television specials, performed with two symphonies and recorded four albums. The awards and honorary doctorates were numerous, among them a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was active up until early 1992 and died of pancreatic cancer on January 6, 1993.

Miriam Makeba and Dizzy Gillespie in concert, Deauville, France, July 1991 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Roland Godefroy)
Deauville, France, July 1991 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Roland Godefroy)
Dizzy Gillespie in a concert in 1988 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Pino alpino)
Chapter: The polar music prize

Stockholm May 1993

The second year of the Polar Music Prize, Dizzy Gillespie got the news that he was the Laureate, together with Witold Lutoslawski, before he passed away on January 6, 1993.

Front row (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)

American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis came to Stockholm to receive the Award on behalf of the late Dizzy Gillespie – and to perform with his septet. In his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, Wynton writes about Dizzy Gillespie: “He took in all the music of his youth – from Roy Eldridge to Duke Ellington – and developed a unique style built on complex rhythm and harmony balanced by wit. Gillespie was so quick-minded, he could create an endless flow of ideas at unusually fast tempo. Nobody had ever considered playing a trumpet that way, let alone had actually tried. All the musicians respected him because, in addition to outplaying everyone, he knew so much and was so generous with that knowledge.”

...in addition to outplaying everyone, he knew so much and was so generous with that knowledge.”

Wynton Marsalis at the ceremony
American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis receives Dizzy Gillespie's Polar Music Prize 1993 from HM King Carl XVI Gustaf. On stage also 1993 year's Laureate Witold Lutoslawski. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Fellow Laureate 1993 Witold Lutoslawski and Wynton Marsalis with the diplomas of the Polar Music Prize (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
The Wynton Marsalis Septet (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)