Dizzy Gillespie: Trumpet Player, Jazz Legend, And Jimmy Carter's Friend

By | April 5, 2021

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American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie performing at the Meridien Hotel in Paris, France. (Thierry Orban/Sygma via Getty Images)

For more than half a century, the jazz sound from Dizzy Gillespie's unusual trumpet revolutionized the music industry, but there was much more to his story than his puffy cheeks. Behind the jazz legend was a fascinating man who overcame the obstacles of his impoverished childhood to invent the genre of bebop, become friends with President Jimmy Carter, and even (albeit jokingly) run for president of the United States himself.

Gillespie's Early Life

John Birks Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on October 21, 1917, the youngest of John and Lottie Gillespie's nine children. His childhood was not a happy one, but his abusive father happened to be a local bandleader, so there were always musical instruments lying around the house. Gillespie began playing the piano when he was four years old and later taught himself to play the trombone and trumpet. Every evening, his family gathered to listen to the radio, and he dreamed of being a great jazz musician like his favorite performer, Roy Eldridge.

Life in the Gillespie house took a turn for the worse when his father died, leaving the family all but penniless when Gillespie was ten years old. Sensing trouble at home and knowing his musical background, his English teacher encouraged him to join the school band, and after a few years of practice, Gillespie started earning money playing gigs with a few local bands. As a talent apparent to both black and white audiences, he became a local sensation.

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Gillespie with John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown, between 1946 and 1948. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Getting Dizzy

After high school, Gillespie earned a music scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. He studied for two years before relocating to Philadelphia in 1935, where he joined the Frank Fairfax Orchestra as well as orchestras fronted by Edgar Hayes and Teddy Hill, with the latter of whom he made his recorded musical debut with a song called "King Porter Stomp." He also received the nickname by which he would be known for the rest of his career while performing with Fairfax. It isn't clear exactly why his bandmates began calling him Dizzy, but most origin stories cite his strange quirks like carrying his trumpet around in a paper sack and general affinity for clowning around.

It all could have ended, however, over an alleged spitball. In 1939, Gillespie was hired by Cab Calloway for his Orchestra, the house band of the hottest jazz club in the country, Harlem's Cotton Club. It was a dream gig, but two years later, Calloway famously fired Gillespie right there on stage after accusing the trumpeter of blowing a spitball at him. The altercation got violent and ended with Gillespie stabbing Calloway in the leg with a small knife. That was the end of Gillespie's time with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, but by then, he didn't need them. During his two years with the band, he'd made enough connections to sustain his career for a lifetime.

It was also during this time that Gillespie first encountered a beautiful young dancer named Lorraine Willis. When they met in August 1937, Willis wasn't interested in the young musician, but Gillespie's persistence paid off. He convinced her not only to go out with him but to marry him three years later. Willis set aside her dancing career to manage Gillespie's, and the couple remained married until his death in 1993. 

Although the Gillespies never had any children, an affair with Julliard-trained songwriter Connie Bryson did produce a daughter, renowned jazz singer Jeanie Bryson, in 1958. Gillespie's secret family was hidden from the media and his fans until 1998, when the younger Bryson sued his estate, revealing court documents dating back to 1965 in which Gillespie admitted to being her father.