Dizzy Gillespie

Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie by W. Gottlieb

Here is John ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, (1935-1993), virtuoso jazz trumpeter and one of the stars of the bebop style in the 1940s to 1950s. As a child, Gillespie heard music in his home and local community, thanks to his father who was a musician, music-making in church, and piano lessons. He learnt first trombone and then trumpet at school, playing in his school band from Third grade. His music teacher was Alice Wilson whom Gillespie later acknowledged as a significant mentor. Wilson not only taught technique and band music but gave Gillespie lessons in jazz improvisation, teaching him how to play popular tunes in a jazz style. The young Gillespie was taught how to read music by his cousin Norman Powe who also helped him with trombone and trumpet.

Gillespie participated enthusiastically in the musical life of his elementary school including playing in the pit orchestra for school plays as well as in the school band. As an older child and teen he also performed at local events such as playing at dances with his cousin and neighbours. Still in elementary school Gillespie also sat in at band rehearsals at the local high school and took trumpet lessons with Fletcher Linton, although he was later dismissive of Linton’s teaching ability. As a teen, Gillespie won a music scholarship to Laurinburg Technical Institute where he studied music, among other school subjects. He also played in band there under the direction of cornetist Shorty Hall. Gillespie practiced extensively as a teenager, often with his cousin Norman Powe.

This early musical education is often hard to discover, obscured behind claims that Gillespie (and many other famous jazz musicians) was ‘self-taught’. Dizzy Gillespie benefited from a rich musical culture in his early years and extensive training, mentorship, and opportunities that helped him eventually to become a professional musician. My PhD research (forthcoming) shows that he was not at all unusual in this kind of educational background and that similar training is very common among jazz ‘greats’. That larger topic will be covered in another post. In the meantime, enjoy this live footage of Gillespie playing ‘Hot House’ alongside saxophonist Charlie Parker, another musician who was definitely not ‘self-taught’. Video courtesy of Youtuber ‘wheb2002’:


Gillespie, D., & Fraser, A. (2009 (1979)). To be, or not…To bop. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Shipton, A. (1999). Groovin’ high: The life of Dizzy Gillespie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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