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

By Karen Harris
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.