October 21, 1917 John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born in Cheraw, South Carolina.
By the age of 12, Gillespie had taught himself to play the piano, trombone, and trumpet and he took his first professional job at 18. Together with Charlie Parker, Gillespie was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz and was also influential in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz.
Gillespie was a major influence on many musicians, including Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Arturo Sandoval. In 1956, he organized a band to go on a State Department tour of the Middle East and earned the nickname “the Ambassador of Jazz.” Gillespie was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1960 and in 1982 was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor in jazz, by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1989, Gillespie received the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s most prestigious cultural award, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Also that year, he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an individual artist by the United States, from President George H. W. Bush.
In 1990, he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award. Gillespie published his autobiography “To Be or Not to Bop,” in 1979 and died on January 6, 1993.