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Getting Dizzy on Bebop

Even if you do not consider yourself a fan of jazz, and merely listen to it fleetingly, you may at some point come across jazz music which features improvisatory trumpet melodies while backed by an orchestra. You may also have come across an instantly recognizable figure in jazz videos, playing a trumpet with its bell bent slightly upwards with his puffed-out cheeks. John Birks Gillespie - known better to the world by his nickname "Dizzy", was an iconic figure in the history of jazz music. He was the youngest of nine children in his family. Did that last fact have any bearing on his musicality? It is likely that he grew up listening to various instruments being played by his siblings, and this possibly gave him the motivation to start playing the piano at four (despite the difficulties of learning the instrument for beginners), and also the trombone and trumpet later on. By the age of fifteen, Gillespie demonstrated enough talent to earn a musical scholarship.

Despite his formal musical training, Dizzy Gillespie skills were honed playing in jazz bands in the 1930s. He worked his way through many prestigious ones, and made many recordings. Neverthless, it would be the networking among jazz musicians that would prove more influential on his personal style. Working with other prominent musicians such as the piano Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, Gillespie influenced the development of styles such as bebop.

The traditional features of bebop are a fast tempo, and underpinning the music are chord progressions which are relatively complex and numerous changes of key. And above the twinkling of the hi-hat, and chords normally heard on the piano, other solo instruments such as the alto or tenor saxophone or trumpet improvise over the plucked strings of the double bass. While the piano serves more as an backing instrument, it has moments to shine as a melodic one too - the instruments take it in turn to improvise, occasionally duetting in a call-and-response manner. Just like all the give and take within a big family.

But Gillespie wasn't just a founding father of bebop. He also pioneered the fusion of jazz with other influences such as Afro-Cuban rhythms, creating another genre we know as Afro-Cuban jazz. The clave-based rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, combined with the jazz harmonies, gave both genres another direction in terms of sound.

And just how exactly did the iconic trumpet come about? In 1953, Gillespie threw a party for his wife Lorraine at a club in Manhattan, but things got a little rowdy and a pair of dancers fell on the instrument. Out of necessity, Gillespie finished the evening playing on the damaged instrument. But he liked the muted tone that it produced so much so that for the rest of his career, he had a special trumpet made with a bell raised at a 45-degree angle.

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