What jazz musician was known for playing a bent trumpet?

While piano, drums, trombone, and even guitar are played in jazz music, saxophone and trumpet are considered as the genre’s signature instruments. In fact, some popular jazz musicians have woodwind instruments such as the trumpet as their instrument.

Take John Birks Gillespie, as an example.

Also known for his stage name as Dizzy Gillespie, John Birks Gillespie is an award-winning jazz musician who became popular for his ingenious and fresh approach to jazz music. He is known for his dedication to promoting the bebop style as well, together with Afro-Cuban jazz music.

But more than that, Gillespie is infamous for his extraordinary way of using a trumpet. Because rather than the typical straight trumpet, his instrument is bent.

What is a Bent Trumpet?

Known as the trademark instrument of Dizzy Gillespie, a bent trumpet is nothing but an ordinary trumpet. But rather than its original form, which is pointing straight ahead, the trumpet’s bell is bent upward at a 45-degree angle.

You must be thinking now that Dizzy Gillespie is an unconventional jazz musician. And that is partly true, and partly not.

According to his autobiography, the reason why his trumpet’s bell is bent upward is not intentional but rather an accident caused by the Stump and Stumpy dancers. It is said that during Lorraine’s birthday—the jazz musician’s wife—at Snookie’s in Manhattan, the group dancer was invited to perform on stage. Two dancers then fell over it, which was placed on a trumpet stand at that time.

Gillespie’s enthusiasm did not stop him to play his trumpet still and went to perform with a damaged—or a bent bell, to be exact—trumpet. To his surprise, the constriction caused by the bent made an interesting sound.

He had the bent trumpet fixed the next day but could not forget how it sounded like. So, his wife sketched the said trumpet and sent a request to Martin Committee to build him the said kind of trumpet. And from then on forward, the bent trumpet has become his trademark instrument.

Dizzy Gillespie: The Jazz Musician and Bent Trumpet Player

Now that you know what a bent trumpet is, let’s move forward and talk about Dizzy Gillespie as a jazz musician, as well as his dedication and contribution to the industry.

Gillespie’s Fresh Perspective & Style

Dizzy Gillespie started playing the trumpet young. According to his biography, it was when he was twelve years old when he started to learn how to play the trumpet, as well as the trombone, by himself.

Such musical ability of his earned him the chance to attend Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina as a trumpet player of the school’s band. Throughout his stay in the said institute, the young Gillespie intensively learned and practice the trumpet and the piano all by himself. It then led him to play in various local bands after he moved to Philadelphia.

The education and experience had eventually led him to invent a fresh and ingenious manner of trumpet playing solo. He called it “running them changes” originally, which is a technique involving chord changes while performing a song and introducing new ones.

Here are a few songs composed by Dizzy Gillespie:

  • Manteca
  • Salt Peanuts
  • Caravan
  • The Night in Tunisia
  • Groovin’ High
  • Summertime And
  • Dark Eyes
  • Blues for Bird
  • And then She Stopped
  • Tin Tin Deo

Gillespie and the Bebop Style

While Dizzy Gillespie is largely known for his contribution to the industry of jazz music, his dedication to promoting the bebop style is his most passionate project throughout his career.

The bebop style, according to Wikipedia, is a subgenre of jazz with a style that is rooted in swing music. The technique features traits such as chord progressions, fast tempos, quick chord changes and key change, adventurous improvisation, and is focused on individual virtuosity.

Such style had Gillespie discover what home is like. With his musical ability and how he plays his trumpet, he found the freedom to experiment, innovate, and improvise contrary to what rigid styles would do. 

However, during its early days, bebop is not as well-received as swing. And even though the latter continues to dominate the music scene during those times, the bent trumpet player still composed songs in bebop style such as “Salt Peanuts” and “Groovin’ High.” In 1942, he wrote the piece “A Night in Tunisia” in the same style although it is still not as popular as swing. 

Fast Forward in 1945, Gillespie tried to promote bebop in front of a crowd. It did not go well, however. It was only when a movie named Jivin’ in Bebop—for which he, together with his band, headlined—premiered did the bebop style became mainstream. 

The Afro-Cuban Jazz

Dizzy Gillespie did not care about the bebop style only. He also worked on introducing Afro-Cuban jazz music later in his career.

Gillespie, who was exposed to Latin rhythms since he was young, continued to explore different styles and genres of jazz during the late 1940s. He then met and became friends with his band’s future conga drummer, Chano Pozo in 1947.

From then on, Gillespie and his friend Mario Bauza introduced Afro-Cuban jazz music to different dance clubs in Harlem, including the Apollo and Palladium Theater.

Gillespie & His Balloon Cheeks

Aside from his trademark instrument, Gillespie is also known for the way he puffs his cheeks while playing a bent trumpet which is called the “Balloon Cheeks.” Everyone who has witnessed the jazz musician performs know how his habit of puffing his cheeks.

Medically, such an ability is called laryngocele. It is a medical condition that depicts the presence of an empty sac along with the larynx. 

Recognitions

Dizzy Gillespie’s contribution to the jazz industry is unparalleled. Because of his passion and dedication to introducing fresh and ingenious ways to perform jazz, he was recognized for various titles.

In 1989, for example, Gillespie received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The following year, he was given the Kennedy Center Honors Award as well as the Duke Ellington Award. In 1991, he was given another Grammy Award for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance. He was also offered an honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music. 

Gillespie also became a part of the International Latin Music Hall (2002) and the New Jersey Hall of Fame (2014) years after his death. 

Conclusion

Dizzy Gillespie has indeed contributed greatly in the scene of jazz music. From his unconventional way of playing the trumpet to his dedication to introduce and promote the bebop style as well as the Afro-Cuban jazz music, his passion towards jazz and the entirety of music truly deserved to be rewarded. And up to this day, Gillespie’s contribution continue to flourish and surely will further thrive through today’s young jazz musicians.