John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, who would have celebrated his 97th birthday on Oct. 21, was the very model of the modern American musical genius: a brilliant instrumentalist and stylistic innovator, he was also an extroverted performer with a wicked sense of humor.
One of the primary creators of bebop in the mid-1940s and an unparalleled trumpeter, Dizzy was a populist who wanted his music to be understood, appreciated and enjoyed. Audiences may have associated him with signature visual clues—the beret and goatee he sported in the 1940s, and the trumpet with the upturned bell he began playing in the 1950s—and adored his onstage clowning and dancing, but anyone with ears could tell how seriously he always took the music. An international star until his death on January 6, 1993 (the same day as Rudolph Nureyev), Gillespie was as fervently respected by fellow musicians, as he was beloved by generations of listeners.
A LIFE spread captured Gillespie in 1948, during bebop’s glory days. Conspicuous in his absence is Charlie Parker, the avatar of bebop, and the man whom Dizzy called “the other side of my heartbeat,” but Gillespie’s vivacious personality was far more palatable to the mainstream. To see this magnificent musician in his youth, ready to convince the world that the music he and his not-yet-understood peers were making was the sound of the future, is still a glorious thing to behold.
Steve Futterman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.