Born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, on October 17, 1917, Dizzy Gillespie would grow up to be one of the true giants of jazz. He probably is best remembered for his association with the almost mythical jazz saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker. During the 1940’s, Gillespie and Parker ushered in the jazz style known as bebop. Alyn Shipton, a jazz critic for The London Times, has taken it upon himself to write the first comprehensive biography of Gillespie since Dizzy’s death in 1993. In 1979, Gillespie published his highly-regarded autobiography To Be, or Not ... to Bop. While Shipton uses the autobiography and other biographies as jumping off points for Groovin’ High, he has gone beyond every other source with an almost fanatical zeal to get the details of Gillespie’s career straight.
Born poor, Gillespie taught himself to play the trumpet. By the late 1930’s, Gillespie was playing in the Cab Calloway band. Known to have a temper, Gillespie took a knife to Calloway after a disagreement as to whether Gillespie had shot a “spitball” at the bandleader. Moving on, Gillespie would play with the Benny Carter, Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine bands during the early and mid-1940’s. In 1945, Gillespie recorded with Parker and other fine musicians some of bebop’s most recognizable tunes, including “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Hot House.” For decades to come, Gillespie was one of jazz’s leading figures.
Always colorful, Gillespie was easy to spot wearing a beret, dark glasses, and sporting a goatee while he played a bent trumpet with his cheeks puffed out. In 1990, it was revealed that Gillespie had had a child, Jeanie Bryson, out of wedlock with Connie Bryson in 1958. Shipton was able to interview Connie Bryson for this biography. Gillespie had been married to Lorraine Gillespie since 1938 and always had put forth the appearance that he was a devoted husband. A complicated figure, Gillespie was a revolutionary jazz musician and inspired many younger jazz musicians. It can be argued that Groovin’ High is weighed down by far too many details, but on the whole Shipton has written a fine tribute to one of the greats of jazz.