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Dizzy Gillespie Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114444).

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Gillespie, Dizzy (21 October 1917–06 January 1993), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, the son of James Gillespie, a mason and musician, and Lottie Powe. Gillespie’s father kept his fellow band members’ instruments at their home, and thus from his toddler years onward Gillespie had an opportunity to experiment with sounds. He entered Robert Smalls public school in 1922. He was as naughty as he was brilliant, and accounts of fighting, showing off, and mischief extend from his youth into adulthood....

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Johnson, Francis (16 June 1792–06 April 1844), musician, bandleader, and composer, also known as Frank Johnson, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his youth and parentage. Most sources cite Martinique as his birthplace, but Stephen Charpié's (1999) work with baptismal records establishes his birth date, birthplace, and status as a free African American. Though skilled at a number of instruments, Johnson seems to have first attained local prominence as a fiddler at dances, parties, and the like; there is some evidence that he played with Matthew “Matt” Black's band in the late 1810s. Johnson also seems to have received some limited instruction during this period from Richard Willis, an Irish immigrant who later directed the West Point military band and who introduced the keyed bugle (also known as a Kent bugle) to the United States....

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Francis Johnson. Courtesy of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

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Jones, Thad (28 March 1923–20 August 1986), jazz horn player, composer, and bandleader, was born Thaddeus Joseph Jones in Pontiac, Michigan. The names of his parents and details of his early childhood are unknown. However, it would seem that his was a musical family: his uncle William was a bandleader, and two of his four brothers were musicians....

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Ory, Kid (25 December 1890?–23 January 1973), jazz trombonist, bandleader, and composer, was born Edward Ory in La Place, Louisiana, of Creole French, Spanish, African-American, and Native American heritage. His father was a landowner; the names and other details of his parents are unknown. Ory first spoke French. The family made weekend visits to New Orleans, thirty miles away, where Ory had many opportunities to hear musicians. He built several instruments before acquiring a banjo at age ten, shortly before his mother died....

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Pryor, Arthur Willard (22 September 1870–18 June 1942), virtuoso trombonist, conductor, and composer, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, the son of Samuel Daniel Pryor, a bandleader, and Mary “Mollie” A. Coker, a pianist. Beginning his musical study as early as age six, Pryor studied piano, violin, string bass, cornet, alto horn, and valve trombone. By age eleven he was quite accomplished on the latter instrument, playing solos with his father’s band. At fifteen he taught himself to play the slide trombone utilizing only two positions instead of the usual seven. Later in his career, to his advantage, he used this technique of playing some notes in “false” or “wrong” positions, developing a facility that is often considered the greatest of all time; he also developed a technique for playing chords (multiphonics)....

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Rogers, Shorty (14 April 1924–07 November 1994), jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player, arranger, and bandleader, was born Milton Michael Rajonsky in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Abraham Rajonsky, an immigrant tailor from Romania, and Anna Sevitsky, from Russia. Rogers was raised in Lee, Massachusetts, where his father owned a tailor shop. He played bugle from age five. Four years later the family moved to the Bronx, New York. He took up trumpet at age twelve and on the strength of his playing he subsequently enrolled at the High School of Music and Art in New York City....

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Watters, Lu (19 December 1911–05 November 1989), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born Lucious Carl Watters in Santa Cruz, California. Nothing is known of his parents. Watters was raised in Rio Vista, near Sacramento, and he loved jazz in his youth. At St. Joseph’s Military Academy he played in the drum and bugle corps. In 1925 the family moved to San Francisco, where Watters formed a band of his own. In the course of this activity, he improved his skills enough to be admitted to the high school band and orchestra the following semester, and at age seventeen he began to teach himself to write musical arrangements. Around this time he began working professionally as a trumpeter on boat cruises, an activity that delayed his graduation from high school....