John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie Collection

Identifier: MSS.1000

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents

The John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie Collection (16 ln. feet) contains materials related to the renowned jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader, Dizzy Gillespie. The Photographs series is the most extensive, offering comprehensive documentation of Gillespie’s personal and professional life. Among others, this series contains photographs captured during his international tours, promotional photoshoots, both on-stage and backstage interactions, and photographs taken during official ceremonies and awards. A significant portion of these photographs were taken by Dizzy Gillespie himself. The Manuscripts series includes, most notably, Gillespie’s appointment books and calendars from the mid-1960s to the 1990s. The Loraine Willis Correspondence consists of letters addressed to Gillespie’s wife and business manager from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Within the Scrapbooks and Realia series, a collection of valuable materials is preserved, including several scrapbooks from the Middle East Tour, posters from jazz festivals, and two Muppet dolls. Finally, the Audiovisual series contains cassette recordings made by Gillespie and other musicians of his circle, as well as video tapes with Gillespie’s TV appearances. This collection was purchased though the NMAAM-Vanderbilt University Collections Initiative.


  • circa 1940s-2003

Conditions Governing Access

This collection may be viewed only in the reading room of Special Collections in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Collections should be requested 2-3 days prior to visiting in order to facilitate easier access. For questions or to request a collection, contact

Biographical / Historical

Born on October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. He played a pivotal role in shaping the bebop movement.

Gillespie’s early exposure to music came through his father, a bandleader and amateur musician. He taught himself the trumpet and trombone and was able to attend the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina on a music scholarship for two years, where he played in the band and took music classes.

In 1935, he moved with his family to Philadelphia and was hired to work in Frankie Fairfax’s band. It was during this time that he earned the nickname “Dizzy” for his playful behavior. He then moved to New York and joined the orchestras of Edgar Hayes and later Teddy Hill. While on tour, Gillespie met Lorraine Willis, a dancer who would become his wife and business manager.

After leaving Teddy Hill’s band, Gillespie worked with various ensembles, including those led by Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, and Billie Holiday. He collaborated with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Lalo Schifrin, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, James Moody, Yusef Lateef.

Gillespie formed his own orchestra in the late 1940s and, alongside other musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, pioneered the bebop style in such compositions as “Groovin’ High,” “Woody ‘n’ You,” and “Salt Peanuts.” The collaboration between Gillespie and the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo led to the development of another jazz style, Afro-Cuban jazz, evident in such compositions as “Manteca,” “Cubano Be,” and “Cubano Bop.”

With his charismatic personality, Gillespie became one of the most recognizable figures in the jazz movement. His unique stage manner, distinctive look with a beret, horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, puffed cheeks, and bent trumpet, made him one of the symbols of jazz. Appearances on TV shows such as The Muppet Show (1979) exposed him to even broader audiences. Beyond music, Gillespie was an advocate for social change. He used his art to address issues of race and equality, championing integration and using his influence to promote social progress. In 1956, he embarked on a State Department-sponsored tour to the Middle East, utilizing jazz as a medium for cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Notably, the ensemble included both black and white musicians, as well as the female trombonist Melba Liston. The success of the tour earned him the nickname “the Ambassador of Jazz.” His humanitarian, universalist views also led him to embrace the Bahai Faith, which he adopted in 1968. Gillespie’s achievements are internationally recognized. He was named the Baashere of Iperu in Nigeria and a Commandeur de l’ordre des Artes et Lettres in France; he also received the National Medal of Arts from President Bush and fourteen honorary doctoral degrees. (Julia Khait)


16 Linear Feet (16 Hollinger boxes, 7 oversize boxes, 1 Paige box, 2 pieces of realia)

Language of Materials



The John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie Collection comprises materials related to the life and professional journey of the renowned jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader, Dizzy Gillespie. Predominant among these artifacts is a substantial collection of photographs, spanning from the 1930s to the early 2000s, with the major portion dating from the 1950s to the 1990s. These photographs not only provide a comprehensive visual chronicle of Gillespie’s personal life and musical career but also serve as a reflection of the dynamic and evolving panorama of the American jazz scene from the 1940s through the 1980s. Of notable significance are also photographs and scrapbooks documenting his 1956 US State Department-sponsored tour to the Middle East, which represents one of the earliest examples of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War era.

Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

NMAAM-Vanderbilt University Collections Initiative

Purchased through the NMAAM-Vanderbilt University Collections Initiative.

Finding Aid for the John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie Collection
In Progress
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


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