John Birks Gillespie was born and raised in Cheraw, the youngest of James and Lottie Gillespie’s nine children. He didn’t get the nickname of Dizzy until his family moved to Philadelphia in 1935.
By then Gillespie had already spent two years studying music on scholarship at the Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, N.C. But his love of music was born in Cheraw.
Gillespie fell in love with music, listening to Roy Elridge on the radio before he was old enough to attend school. It was here in Cheraw that Gillespie learned to play the piano, and at first, the trombone. His music teacher, Alice Wilson of Cheraw, also allowed him to learn the trumpet after she learned he had been borrowing his friend’s trumpet. It was the only trumpet the school owned.
The trumpet became his life line, and eventually, his trademark.
Not only did Gillespie bring about a new genre of music called BeBop, he “re-created” the trumpet as well. By accident, in 1953, the bell of his trumpet was accidentally turned upward. Gillespie liked both the sound and the look. And by 1954, his unique trumpet was custom made for him by Martin.
Two years after his death, in April 1995, the instrument was auctioned at Christie’s of New York. It brought $63,000. The money was given to jazz musicians facing cancer.
According to most accounts of his life, Gillespie’s personality was a big as his music. The last paragraph of his official website sums up his contributions to the world.
“With a strong sense of pride in his Afro-American heritage, he left a legacy of musical excellence that embraced and fused all musical forms, but particularly those forms with roots deep in Africa such as the music of Cuba, other Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Additionally, he left a legacy of goodwill and good humor that infused jazz musicians and fans throughout the world with the genuine sense of jazz’s ability to transcend national and ethnic boundaries—for this reason, Gillespie was and is an international treasure.”
Also from that site, are his career highlights:
- New Star Award from Esquire Magazine (1944)
- Performs at first integrated concert in public school, Cheraw (1959)
- First jazz musician appointed by U.S. State Department to undertake cultural mission (1972)
- Handel Medallion Award from the city of New York (1972)
- Paul Robeson Award from Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies (1972)
- Performs at White House for President Carter and the Shah of Iran (1977)
- Performs “Salt Peanuts” with President Carter at White House jazz concert (1978)
- Inducted into Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1982)
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (1989)
- National Medal of Arts from President Bush (1989)
- Duke Ellington Award from the Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (1989)
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 91989)
- Kennedy Center Honors Award (1990)
- Fourteen honorary degrees, including Ph.D. Rutgers University (1972), Ph.D. Chicago Conservatory of Music (1978)
- Awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for recording