Gillespie’s trademark trumpet featured a bell which bent upward at a 45-degree angle rather than pointing straight ahead as in the conventional design. According to Gillespie’s autobiography, this was originally the result of accidental damage caused by the dancers Stump and Stumpy falling onto it while it was on a trumpet stand on stage at Snookie’s in Manhattan on January 6, 1953, during a birthday party for Gillespie’s wife Lorraine. The constriction caused by the bending altered the tone of the instrument, and Gillespie liked the effect. He had the trumpet straightened out the next day, but he could not forget the tone. Gillespie sent a request to Martin to make him a ‘bent’ trumpet from a sketch produced by Lorraine, and from that time forward played a trumpet with an upturned bell.’
Gillespie’s biographer Alyn Shipton writes that Gillespie probably got the idea for a bent trumpet when he saw a similar instrument in 1937 in Manchester, England, while on tour with the Teddy Hill Orchestra. According to this account (from British journalist Pat Brand) Gillespie was able to try out the horn and the experience led him, much later, to commission a similar horn for himself.
Whatever the origins of Gillespie’s upswept trumpet, by June 1954, he was using a professionally manufactured horn of this design, and it was to become a visual trademark for him for the rest of his life. Such trumpets were made for him by Martin (from 1954), King Musical Instruments (from 1972) and Renold Schilke (from 1982, a gift from Jon Faddis). Gillespie favored mouthpieces made by Al Cass. In December 1986 Gillespie gave the National Museum of American History his 1972 King ‘Silver Flair’ trumpet with a Cass mouthpiece. In April 1995, Gillespie’s Martin trumpet was auctioned at Christie’s in New York City, along with instruments used by other famous musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. An image of Gillespie’s trumpet was selected for the cover of the auction program. The battered instrument sold to Manhattan builder Jeffery Brown for $63,000, the proceeds benefiting jazz musicians suffering from cancer.