by Gary Ferdman
THIS NOVEMBER MARKS the 50th anniversary of the presidential campaign of a candidate who was an advocate for nuclear arms control and an unwavering and outspoken supporter of civil rights even at the risk of his career.
Master politician Lyndon Johnson? Nope. Try master musician John Birks (Dizzy) Gillespie, who would have turned 97 on October 21st.
Decades before Dizzy announced his presidential campaign at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival, he had been aided and abetted in the development of his career by jazz impresario Norman Granz. Granz (1918-2001) incorporated Dizzy and saxophonist Charlie Parker into his groundbreaking Jazz at the Philharmonic series, recorded and distributed Diz via his record labels, and encouraged the trumpeter’s exploration of Afro-Cuban music. He brought Gillespie and other jazz greats (he represented Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, among many others) out of smoky clubs and into concert halls. Because Granz recognized that jazz had a global audience, he helped Gillespie become an international star. (To see Gillespie playing in a duet in 1964, look below.)
Granz and Gillespie were a good match. Granz, son of Jewish immigrants from Moldova, grew up in Los Angeles-area communities where he experienced prejudice and discrimination as part of a Jewish minority. His father lost his business during the Depression, sending the family into an economic tailspin. Granz organized the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert to raise funds for — and call attention to — a group of Mexican detainees unjustly sent to prison. As he explained, “The whole basis for forming Jazz at the Philharmonic was initially to fight discrimination… I felt that it made no kind of sense to treat a musician with any kind of respect and dignity onstage and then make him go around to the back door when he’s offstage…. I insisted that my musicians be treated with the same respect as Leonard Bernstein or [Jascha] Heifetz because they were just as good, both as men and musicians.”
As Dizzy recalled, “Norman Granz hired the best musicians… He paid them top money and they traveled first class.” Even in cities like Houston, Granz insisted on non-segregated audiences. Dizzy appreciated the sharp contrast between Granz’s words and deeds for racial equality and the attitudes and behavior of the whites he had encountered growing up in the deep South.
DIZZY HIMSELF WAS A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST and fundraiser whose heroes were Malcolm X (his pick for Attorney General had he won in 1964), Martin Luther King, and Paul Robeson, all of whom paid dearly for their political activism.
Dizzy’s presidential announcement in 1964 triggered the formation of “JOHN BIRKS SOCIETY” committees — a word play on the rightwing John Birch Society — in twenty-five states to promote Dizzy’s candidacy and his pro-civil rights and anti-war positions.
Dizzy appointed Jon Hendricks — of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross fame — as his presidential campaign’s official lyricist. Hendricks morphed Dizzy’s classic SALT PEANUTS into:
Your politics ought to be a groovier thing
VOTE DIZZY! VOTE DIZZY!
So get a good President who’s willing to swing
VOTE DIZZY! VOTE DIZZY!
Show the Republic where it is
Give them a Democratic Diz – Remember he is
Dizzy said “I liked the idea of running for President… I’d have fought for a disarmament program and world government.” He ran in 1964 also because proceeds from the sale of DIZZY FOR PRESIDENT buttons went to Rev. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and he could “threaten the Democrats with a loss of votes and swing them to a more reasonable position on civil rights.”
SUCH ATTITUDES AND STRATEGIC THINKING were part of Dizzy’s modus operandi. Like Granz, he saw music as a tool for social change. Dizzy had for decades educated the public about tolerance and appreciation of non-white cultures by composing and promoting world music, paving the way for musicians like Paul Simon and using it to explore and take pride in his African roots. On the first of many trips to Cuba, he empathized with the plight of poor Cubans because their rural communities reminded him of his home town of Cheraw, South Carolina. And he helped promote peace and nuclear disarmament by collaborating with animated film makers John and Faith Hubley on The Hat and The Hole. The latter won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1962.
Gillespie’s combos were often integrated, and he encouraged the Musicians Union not to allow its members to play for segregated audiences and took the lead by refusing to play for segregated audiences himself.
On the road, he made it a point to integrate hotel swimming pools, as he did in French Lick, Indiana in 1958. Dizzy showed up at poolside in full international regalia, bathing trunks from the French Riviera, skull cap from Greece, Turkish slippers with curled up toes, and announced: “I’ve come to integrate the pool.” He shed his Sheraton Hotel towel, which had been fastened around his neck by a jade scarab pin from Egypt, grabbed white trumpet player Jimmy McPartland by the arm, and jumped in.
After meeting with Richard Nixon in the White House in 1972, Dizzy briefly considered another presidential run. He changed his mind because two years earlier he had become a follower of the Baha’i faith and he learned that it was against the religion’s principles to run for office.
Always with his eye on the real prize, he continued to pursue other means to achieve the ends he would have advocated as a presidential candidate, saying “I have been deeply concerned with drawing attention to the dire necessity of drawing together the peoples of the world in unity so that all wars may cease.”
Dizzy’s musical legacy lives on through the Jazz Tuesdays series, organized by long-time Gillespie pianist Mike Longo and his wife Dot. These 8 p.m. concerts are held in the Gillespie Auditorium in the Baha’i Center at 53 East 11th St, Manhattan home of the religion Gillespie chose because it so matched his commitment to peace and celebration of diverse cultures.
Gary Ferdman is a not for profit executive and lifetime jazz fan. He once had dinner with Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz Tuesdays: www.jazzbeat.com