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In this lesson, you will explore the performance and composition styles of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Then, you’ll be able to test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Dizzy

Trumpet player

Look at this musician.

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Notice anything;unusual? Those of you who are trumpet players may notice how puffed out his cheeks are. You’re not supposed to do that when you play the trumpet. Even those of you without musical know-how may also notice something about that trumpet, like how the bell points up. That’s not really standard. Well, that’s John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, a jazz musician of the 20th century noted for his crooked trumpet, puffed cheeks, and, most of all, his genre-defining musical style.

Dizzy the Trumpeter and Composer

Dizzy Gillespie is known as one of the greatest trumpet players ever, and one that was years ahead of his time.

Gillespie’s personal style of trumpet performance, which he perfected in the 1940s, was so complex that it was nearly 30 years until other artists started emulating it. And, yes, part of his sound came from that bent trumpet. According to one story, a dancer tripped on his trumpet while it was on stage, and he had to play with the bell bent out of shape. The damage altered the tone, and Dizzy realized that he liked the new sound. So, he commissioned the Martin Band Instrument Company of Indiana to make him a trumpet with a bent bell, and it became his signature instrument.Apart from his sound, Dizzy Gillespie’s fame as a trumpeter stemmed from the fact that he was unbelievably talented at improvisation. Improv is one of the cornerstones of jazz music, and Gillespie’s style was undeniably unique.

At all times he was focused on rhythm – stretching it, bending it, and pushing it to the limits of what was possible in jazz music.Now, just so we’re all on the same page, improv is when a musician makes up the melody on the spot, all while staying in key, meeting the chord changes of the rest of the band, and maintaining the tempo. Dizzy Gillespie was one of the fastest improv musicians in jazz, inventing melodies that ran up and down and all over the place, all at a tempo many musicians simply avoided. And it wasn’t just mindless chord progressions that he was playing; a Gillespie improvisation had personality. It was happy or sad, suspenseful or comedic, with unexpected pauses and complex rhythms.

Bebop and Afro-Cuban Jazz

Now, we know that Dizzy Gillespie was a jazz musician, but there are several kinds of jazz music. The style we most often associate with Dizzy is bebop, a fast-tempo jazz style with melodies and solos that often seemed unrelated but were actually connected. Bebop was just emerging in the 1940s, and Gillespie was one of the key figures in popularizing it. This wasn’t easy to do. At the time, the most popular styles of jazz music were all focused on dancing.

Swing, especially, was very popular because people could dance to it.But you can’t dance to bebop. It’s too fast, too erratic, too improvised. This was a change in what people expected out of jazz music.

Between his complex solos and his pleasant, likeable personality, Dizzy Gillespie was one of the main reasons that bebop grew as a respected and popular style of jazz music. In particular, his 1945 album Shaw ‘Nuff, which featured major hits like ‘Groovin’ High’ (today considered a classic), shocked the jazz community enough to make them start taking bebop seriously.But bebop was not the limit of Dizzy Gillespie’s talents. Dizzy was also heavily involved in the musical style of Afro-Cuban jazz, a variation of Latin jazz based on traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms that were entering the United States in the 1940s. Now, jazz music has always been based on African musical traditions, but up until the 1940s, this mostly meant African-American music.

As more Afro-Cubans moved to New York, the sounds and rhythms of the Caribbean came with them, bringing music that fused Spanish, Latin, and African elements into a lively mixture. Gillespie was attracted to the sounds, instruments and rhythms of Afro-Cuban jazz and soon was a major composer and performer of the genre.Although Afro-Cuban jazz was related to bebop through the upbeat tempos and complex melodies, it was also very different. Unlike bebop, Latin and Caribbean music is made for dancing, making Gillespie one of the few musicians to be able to transition back and forth between jazz made for dancing and jazz made just for listening.

Lesson Summary

John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie was one of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century, known for his incredible skills as an improvisational trumpet player.

Dizzy’s emotional melodies, performed at rapid tempos, required a mixture of pure talent, instinct, and intellect that few musicians since have been able to match. He was an instrumental figure in the style of jazz called bebop, characterized by a fast tempo and complex melodies. However, he was also active in Afro-Cuban jazz, the mixture of American jazz with Caribbean and Latin rhythms, instruments, and sounds.

Unlike bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz is made for dancing. It’s not easy to transition back and forth between styles like that, but Dizzy Gillespie did. And he did it all with puffed cheeks and a bent trumpet.

Learning Outcomes

As you gather information from this lesson on Dizzy Gillespie, you can prepare to:

  • Highlight Dizzy’s sound and playing style
  • Remember the talents that Dizzy was most known for
  • Discuss Dizzy’s impact on jazz and the beebop style

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