Dizzy Gillespie, 75, the innovative jazz trumpeter who co-founded be-bop and confounded audiences with his blistering speed for six decades, died of cancer yesterday in a hospital in Englewood, N.J.
A master of stratospheric notes and one of the most influential performers in jazz, Gillespie was traveling more than 300,000 miles and playing 300 concerts annually with big bands well into his sixties. In 1992, during a year-long celebration of his 75th birthday, he played for a month with some of the world's top musicians at the Blue Note club in New York's Greenwich Village.
Over the years, Gillespie was honored by presidents, revered by fellow musicians and awarded 17 honorary degrees. He became a fixture at top jazz festivals and clubs.
Among his peers were Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and fellow be-bop evolutionist Charlie Parker. He outlasted many musicians of his era by avoiding the drug and alcohol abuse that claimed many lives in the jazz world.
Saxophonist Parker, who had joined Gillespie in the jazz saloons of Harlem for the fast, angular sessions that were the first stirrings of modern jazz, died in 1955. Gillespie kept working for the rest of his life, touring the world as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department, winning Grammy awards in 1975 and 1980 and recording more than 100 albums. His compositions included "Salt Peanuts" and "Night in Tunisia."
With his signature bullfrog cheeks and upturned trumpet bell, Gillespie was an irrepressible showman who danced, joked, mugged, wore plaid and told stories -- antics that helped him earn the nickname Dizzy.
Legend had it that Gillespie's trumpet was stepped on at a party and that he left it bent upward at a 45-degree angle because he liked the way it sounded.
He had played with many big bands in the 1930s but complained that he and other horn players never could play as they wanted. In the 1940s, he linked up with Parker and pianist Thelonius Monk in jazz clubs in Harlem and on Manhattan's 52nd Street to create a new sound.
Be-bop evolved in the early 1940s, at a time when big bands dominated popular music. Be-bop was a hard sell to a public used to swing, or big-band, jazz.
For one thing, listening to this more intellectual music took greater concentration, writer Gilbert S. McKean pointed out at the time. This new direction, another leg on the long journey jazz was making from New Orleans, was particularly intriguing to young players, many of whom tried to emulate Parker and Gillespie.
Be-bop musicians dressed in big-shouldered, outsized suits and broad, flashy ties, wore mustaches, goatees, berets and dark-rimmed glasses -- in imitation of Gillespie -- and injected their slang -- "cool," "man" and "cat" -- into American English.
"Folks would come up to us and say: 'Hey, play that tune. You know, the one that goes "de-de-bop, do-bop-de-bop." ' And that's how they started calling our music be-bop," Gillespie recalled in his autobiography, "To Be Or Not to Bop."
He was a high-profile ambassador-at-large for jazz, frequenting talk shows and children's television programs to talk about music.
"There is a parallel with jazz and religion," Gillespie, a devotee of the Bahai faith, once said. "In jazz, a messenger comes to the music and spreads his influence to a certain point and then another comes and takes you further."
He once even managed to talk a U.S. president into a public performance of his classic "Salt Peanuts."
The trumpeter was at the White House in 1978 for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, and President Jimmy Carter, who recalled hearing Dizzy play "Salt Peanuts" years earlier in New York, requested the tune.
Gillespie said yes, but only if Carter would sing it. The president did, in front of the cameras -- and the world.
Born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, S.C., the last of nine children whose father was a bricklayer and weekend bandleader, Gillespie started out on the trombone at age 14 and switched to trumpet when he was 15. Quickly recognized as a prodigy, he won a scholarship to study music theory and harmony at Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina.
He withdrew from the institute to join his family in Philadelphia and while still a teenager landed his first job, with the New York-based Teddy Hill Orchestra. In 1939, he was hired by Cab Calloway to replace the ailing Doc Cheatham in Calloway's touring band.
He later returned to New York, working with orchestras and joining other musical young Turks at nightspots to jam after work. By 1945, he and Parker joined a quartet that created the first of the be-bop records, including "Groovin' High," "Hot House" and "Dizzy Atmosphere." Gillespie later formed be-bop's first big band and, in the early 1950s, launched his own record label, Dee Gee.
Ever the jokester, he ran as a write-in candidate for president in 1964, promising to change the White House into the "Blues House" and make Miles Davis head of the CIA.
He is survived by his wife, Lorraine, of Englewood.