It’s all captured in bronze on Cheraw’s Town Green, the trademark bulging cheeks, closed eyes and bent trumpet. Come see Dizzy as he was in life - larger than life! Explore the roots of the founder of modern jazz or “bebop,” the most American of all music forms.
Visit the Gillespie Home Site Park with its eclectic stainless steel benches, modern sculpture and Historic Marker. Follow the actual notes to “Salt Peanuts” on the steel fence. Pick up a brochure on sites associated with Gillespie’s life in Cheraw at the Cheraw Chamber of Commerce or celebrate Dizzy’s birthday with us at the South Carolina Jazz Festival the third weekend in October. Join the band of jazz fans bebopping to Cheraw!
Jazz King Dizzy Gillespie is Cheraw’s most famous son. This founder of modern jazz was an innovative trumpeter known for his bent horn, bulging cheeks and sense of humor. Born in Cheraw, South Carolina on Oct. 21, 1917, he was the ninth and last child of James and Lottie Gillespie. His given name was John Birks Gillespie, and many of his old friends still refer to him as John Birks. In his autobiography Dizzy says, “In Cheraw mischief, money making and music captured all my attention.”
Cheraw is one of the oldest inland towns in South Carolina. At the time of Gillespie’s birth it contained around 3,500 people. Some degree of prosperity had finally returned after the Confederate War, but the area was still poor and heavily dependent on agriculture. Cheraw had long been a business center. It was on the main rail line, and up until 1926 steamboats still plied the Great Pee Dee River.
The Gillespie family home was on the west side of the 300 block of Huger Street. A park and SC Historic Marker honoring Gillespie were dedicated at this site in October 2002. Artist Bob Doster worked with Cheraw school children to create the park’s modern sculpture and eclectic stainless steel benches. Doster also crafted a stainless steel fence depicting the notes to “Salt Peanuts”, one of Gillespie’s best known works.
Dizzy had a number of friends and relatives in Cheraw, including the late Norman Powe, one of his life long closest friends. It was Powe who taught Dizzy to read music; Dizzy had always played only by ear. They were roommates at the Laurinburg Institute and played together in local bands. When Dizzy received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, Powe was his special guest in Washington. Several first cousins are his closest relatives still in Cheraw. Dizzy’s surviving immediate family lives in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Gillespie graduated from Robert Smalls School in 1933. Located on Front Street, the original school building is no longer there. It was here that Dizzy began playing in a band and first performed in public in one of beloved teacher Alice Wilson’s minstrel shows. He was known as a “smart but fidgety student”. He received a scholarship to The Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina because they needed him for the band.
Dizzy had a wonderful sense of rhythm , and as a little boy he often danced for money at the Chiquora Club dances, where he was the only black allowed in. This building, c. 1910, is still standing behind the Town Hall. The ballroom was upstairs. His first paid gig was at a “white” Cheraw High School dance. He also performed at the Town Hall (c. 1858) which at that time was the town office and opera house, with the Masonic Hall ballroom upstairs. The Town Hall now houses city government. He played at a number of other sites in Cheraw, including in the building at the end of Market Street, and for dances in surrounding towns.
The Gillespie family attended Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, “rebuilt” in 1915 on Greene Street. Older members of the congregation remembered “John Birks” well. The “Sanctified” church whose music so inspired him was a block behind this church near his home on Huger Street, but the present building on the corner of West Greene and Huger Street is not the original structure.
Gillespie loved “moving pictures”. He became so adept at sneaking in to see shows at The Lyric Theatre that the manager gave him a job keeping other kids from doing the same. The pay was seeing the movie free. He especially liked cliffhangers. Built in 1920, the old Lyric Theatre has been renovated, and is now called “The Theatre on the Green”. It has been adapted for use for live performances. The old “colored entrance” was the door on the right hand side.
Gillespie also sometimes hung out at the ice house, and when he returned to Cheraw he occasionally dropped by the bar at Pee Dee Ice and Fuel for old times’ sake. The ice house is behind Old St. David’s Church.
Dizzy’s father was a brick mason who played with bands on the weekend. He died suddenly from asthma when Dizzy was not quite ten. They had been fairly prosperous; they suddenly became destitute. His mother became a maid and laundress; all the children tried to earn some money. Life became very hard, and Mrs. Gillespie finally moved to the North to join her sister while Dizzy was at the Laurinburg Institute. Shortly after he graduated, Gillespie joined his family and almost immediately got a job with a band. Very shortly thereafter he acquired his famous nickname, and the rest is musical history.
He never lived in Cheraw again, but he came back often to visit friends., and he usually opened his performances around the world with “I’m Dizzy Gillespie from Cheraw, South Carolina”. The town first honored Gillespie with a big parade in 1959. His performance afterward drew more than half of the entire population. He was honored once more in 1983 with a celebration and the keys to the city. He last performed here in 1985. John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie died on January 6th, 1993 in New Jersey where he had lived for many years with his beloved wife Lorraine. He is buried in Flushing Cemetery in New York near Louis Armstrong.
On the 85th anniversary of Gillespie’s birth, the town of Cheraw dedicated a seven foot bronze statue of Gillespie playing his trademark bent horn on the Town Green. The statue was designed by nationally acclaimed artist Ed Dwight of Denver. Relief inscriptions at the base chronicle highlights of Gillespie’s extraordinary musical career.
At the city limits of Cheraw are signs that say “Home of Dizzy Gillespie”, a street is named for him, and his signature bent horn is the logo of the Cheraw Arts Commission. There is a small Dizzy Gillespie display at the Cheraw Lyceum Museum on the Town Green. Requests for information on Gillespie and his life in Cheraw still come from all over the world.
© Sarah Spruill 2006.