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Cancer silences jazz great Gillespie at 75

The jazz world is mourning the loss of one of its elder statesmen–trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who died yesterday at age 75.

Gillespie, who blew new life into jazz through his trademark bulging cheeks and bent trumpet, died in his sleep at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, where he was being treated for pancreatic cancer, said publicist Virginia Wicks.

Along with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Gillespie stood as one of the towering figures of modern jazz. His style combined blistering speed, melodic warmth, a phenomenally high range, compositional genius and a terrific sense of humor.

“Dizzy was an original,” said renowned saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who met Gillespie in 1945 and subsequently worked with him throughout the years. “He opened a way of playing that was original and made a lot more things possible in jazz trumpet playing.”

Another sax player, Branford Marsalis, leader of the “Tonight Show” band, said in a statement, “Dizzy was one of the great pioneers of jazz music and a close personal friend. I’ll miss him dearly.”

Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, who also played with Gillespie, said, “As far as the trumpet world was concerned, he was one of the biggest influences that there has ever been. He brought jazz to the forefront.”

Gillespie is credited with pushing jazz in new directions in at least two ways–as a founding father of the style known as bebop and by helping to give African-American music a Latin beat through his collaborations with Cuban musicians.

Perhaps more than anyone since Louis Armstrong, he helped popularize jazz through a charismatic combination of humor and showmanship. Bandleader Woody Herman ranked him and Armstrong as the two most influential jazz musicians of all time.

“He brought many things into jazz,” Brubeck said. “He was very important in that way. He never stopped influencing.”

Well-known L.A. trumpeter Jack Sheldon, who also worked with Gillespie, said, “He just started his own style. He made up a new type of music. He played the trumpet better than anybody. Everybody plays a little like him, but nobody has ever equaled his playing.”

Gillespie was an accomplished composer who wrote or co-wrote many songs that became jazz standards, including “A Night in Tunisia,””Groovin’ High,””Manteca, “”Salt Peanuts,””Con Alma” and “Woody ‘n You.”

John Birks Gillespie was born Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw, S.C., the youngest of nine children. His father was a bricklayer and amateur musician and, although Gillespie remembered fearing his father’s anger, he also inherited his love for music.

Gillespie’s first instrument was the piano, but by the third grade, he fell in love with a friend’s new trumpet and began playing it whenever he could.

In 1935, Gillespie’s family moved to Philadelphia and within two years, Dizzy–the nickname referred to his zaniness–had made the jump to New York. Not long after, he ran into orchestra leader Teddy Hill, who hired the 20-year-old for a tour of Europe.

In 1939, with the help of a young dancer named Lorraine Willis, he joined the Cab Calloway Orchestra. The following year, he married Willis. Their marriage, which lasted his lifetime, gave him stability that set him apart from many musicians.

Gillespie came of age during the Big Band era, and played the trumpet in a style that descended from Armstrong and Roy Eldridge. After hours, he and other adventurous young players experimented with new music in all-night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and other clubs.

Out of this grew bebop, a reaction to the swing music most bands of that time were playing.

Gillespie left Calloway’s band in 1941, and played with a succession of other bandleaders over the next several years. His stint in one of those bands–that of Earl “Fatha” Hines — gave him the opportunity to spend time with a young sax player, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Their friendship and musical collaboration provided the foundation for many of the ideas in bebop.

In 1943, Gillespie and bass player Oscar Pettiford formed a small combo that played the first public performances of bebop.

In 1953, Gillespie fronted a quintet at Massey Hall in Toronto for what was dubbed by critics “the greatest jazz concert ever.” It featured Gillespie on trumpet, Parker on sax, Bud Powell on piano, Max Roach on drums and Charles Mingus on bass.

Gillespie continued touring and recording at an exhausting pace throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, tinkering with his standards but also trying new ideas and new material.

He and his wife lived in Englewood, N.J. They had no children.

A private funeral service is scheduled for tomorrow in Manhattan. A public memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was being worked out.

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