Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie - I witness

By Ferdi Serim

Dear KidLeadr Friends,

What follows is an eyewitness account of the life, music and influence of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, which I share with you because it is timely, and to help me in my grieving. It is long and also in lieu of an introduction, so if you'll forgive me, I'll forgive anyone who hits the delete key at this point. As one who has lived thru many dreams come true (of which using the internet with kids seems to be the next), I can say that most of these came to me thru Dizzy, or what he awakened in me.

For those of you still with me, let me first say that in Jazz, we come from a tradition that goes back to Africa, and incorp- orates what has happened along the way. So, to understand the grieving, you need to know the New Orleans tradition of "shooting the spirit". When someone in the community died, a parade would form, with a wagon carrying the band following the wagon carrying the casket, playing sad, dirgelike tunes all the way out to the cemetary. At the graveside, appropriate solemn words would be spoken, tears shed, cries heard. Then, something remarkable would happen: the band would strike up the most joyous music they could play, and the "mourners" would all parade back to town, celebrating all the good things the recently departed person had meant to those left behind, and a party would begin, which could go on for days and nights and more days. Thus, folks "shot the spirit" into its new abode, with joy and thankfulness for a life well lived.

To know who Dizzy was, and why he is important to people all over the world, you can check out any of the media, which for a time, will be filled with all the facts. Some even grumble that he had become a "media icon", and certainly he was one of only a handful of Jazz musicians whose name was recognized by the general public. But my eyewitness account begins in 1980, when Dizzy first entered my life, in person.

Before this, as a musician, ex-music teacher, I certainly knew enough to realize that without Dizzy's invention, music would sound like Lawrence Welk. So when I met him in Washington, DC, in the crowded aisle of a bus, I extended my hand and said, "Diz, I've wanted to thank you for a long time", to which he replied, "Then I'll have to say 'You're welcome' for a long time" Dizzy's humor always was at the ready, prompting people to not take themselves too seriously, get past petty divisions, and have FUN in life.

The next night, back in Princeton, I sat on the bandstand as a guest, watching Diz perform with the Rutgers Jazz Professors. A great drummer, who played rings around me, was playing with Dizzy for the first time, and to my amazement he seemed to falter for the first couple tunes! I could understand being nervous if it was me, but this guy was great and here the pressure of going up with a living legend took its toll. Soon, things settled down, and at the end of the evening, I heard him say to Diz, "Here I am meeting you for the first time, after playing with you", sensing the pleasure of a rite of passage becoming a milestone.

My own turn came a year later, in an unlikely circumstance. As a program administrator, I was called upon to evaluate an artist in residence activity in Maine which involved Dizzy as a guest artist on tour of the state. Sensing an opportunity to unite business with pleasure, I packed my wife and 5 month old daughter into the van and headed north.

When we arrived at the Portland civic center, the college band was rehearsing Dizzy's music, with no sign of the maestro. The 3 o'clock rehearsal became a 4 and 5 and then 6 o'clock rehearsal before Dizzy strode into the hall, and put the band thru its paces. The student drummer was having trouble with a double-time passage, and each time he messed it up, Diz would come a little closer, and yell a little louder, as I watched agahst from 30 feet away. Trying to be slick, I picked up a stick and tapped out the correct rhythm on a music stand to give the kid a cue, when Diz whipped around, pointed at me, and said, "Boy, *you're* a drummer, get over here and play it!" One does not refuse such an order in Dizzy's presence! And so, with my only rehearsal being hearing the student play it wrong three times, I played the concert, and went on to do the tour of the state.

We stayed in a farmhouse owned by a Maine musician, and Dizzy took quite a fancy to my daughter. I guess he found the openness and lack of ulterior motives refreshing! The pictures of both of them together are an heirloom I hope she will treasure as I do.

During the tour, at the Camden Opera House, my moment of truth happened. Up to this point, I only had to play the two tunes with the college band. I could tell that the student had learned the part after hearing me play it right the first time, and although he wasn't angry towards me, he was burned! Then came the opportunity to take part in a Jam with local pros, in front of 3000 people. The tune was Blue Bossa, and I played percussion on a log-drum, which is fairly safe to do; everyone else solos and you just play accompanying rhythm - no sweat! Until Dizzy stops the band, puts the spotlight on you and ...

I closed my eyes, reached deep inside and found a sonic story, which seemed to flow out of my hands. I felt the music build, observed my arms crossing and weaving, playing all sides of the drum, and only opened them in disbelief to an ovation. Dizzy smiled.

The next day, and for the rest of the tour, I didn't get a solo, and *that* was how I knew I'd gotten to Diz! The last night of the tour, I gave a gift to the drummer: I just plain didn't show up. Jazz traditions may seem a little strange to an outsider, but only in this way could the student be forced to redeem himself, and get the kind of lifelong memory I'd already been given!

The following year, I was given a residency of my own, and I knew that the high school band I was working with was better than the college band we'd been with in Maine. I got Dizzy's number, took a deep breath, and called him. "Diz", I said, "I toured with you in Maine last year". "Don't remember", said Mr. Gillespie. "With my daughter, who was 5 months old?". "Oh, yeah, sure! I know you now." And so I credit my daughter with what came after.

At this time, Dizzy was getting in the 5 figures for a performance, and doing as many as 300 a year.He agreed to come to Salem, NJ (halfway between NY and Washington DC) to play with the kids for a fraction of his fee, and we worked for months to play his arrangements!

When the day for the concert came, the entire community came out, and so much music was played by students and professionals, that the entire school district had a delayed opening the next morning, since no one had gone to sleep before midnight! I don't know how the called it - it wasn't a snow day, nor a hurricane day - it was a Dizzy Day! The racial divisions which had been a problem were at least temporarily healed by the level of community Dizzy's music created that night.

In 1984, I did my last residency in my own town, South Brunswick, NJ. I called Diz again, and asked if he would play again with a high school group. He explained that for the money we had, he couldn't do it. I replied that our funds had been raised by parents at bake sales, and the proceeds would go to fund a Jazz Masters concert series which would bring other luminaries into the lives of these student musicians and community audiences, and he agreed.

Knowing what was needed, we began preparing the students months in advance to play Dizzy's charts. Then I had my panic attack: two days before the concert, I called his wife, Lorraine to arrange to pick him up and take him to the school. She informed me that Dizzy was in Paris! Not to worry, though: she said that when they extended his tour there, he insisted that they include a ticket on the Concorde so he could fly back and play with our high school band!

On the way to the concert (I'd long since learned that it is far better to chauffer Diz to and from the gig than to wonder where he is and when he'll get there), I had a graduate level music theory course, asking Dizzy questions, and having him sing back the answers, explaining the theory behind his rhythmic and harmonic innovations.

So the morning of the day when we played with Dizzy, he woke up in Paris, flew to NJ, rehearsed with us at 4PM (eyes half open), and tightened up the horn section. Impressed with their sound and command of *his* arrangements, he passed out his own version of "A Night in Tunisia" for the kids to sight read. After the squeaks, honks and blatts died down, he collected the sheets, and turned to me and said, "Man, you've worked a *miracle* here!"

Come concert time, a different Gillespie graced the stage... Suddenly energized, awake and ready for fun, Dizzy started the students thru his arrangement of "Round Midnight", and my arrangement of "Free Ride". That night, during the student rendition of "Manteca", Dizzy stopped the band again, only this time it was to be a duet.

The master, with his horn, spun out calls and response, and I, with all he'd awakened in me, replied and challenged back. A musical moment I'll never get over, and one which taught me that you *can* achieve whatever your heart desires, provided it is with 100% of your heart's desire.

The concert was sold out, funded the rest of the series, and ultimately won our town a national award for innovative community programming.

My turn for payback came the next year. I had become the performing arts coordinator for the State Arts Council, and so had the opportunity to honor Dizzy Gillespie. We got the Governor to declare June 29, 1985 as Dizzy Gillespie Day, and brought him to meet the Governor, and organized a concert of NJ Jazz greats to celebrate the day with him. I learned to my chagrin, that it would be a conflict of interest for me to play in the concert, and so I hired a great drummer and MC'd instead. We even got the wonderful Jazz radio station WBGO to record the concert for broadcast over National Public Radio. The band was comprised of Dizzy Gillespie alumni, including James Moody, Richie Cole, Mickey Tucker, Earl May and Eddie Gladden (names that should be known but usually aren't outside of Jazz circles).

This time, the ride to the concert proved more magical than music theory, as Dizzy explained to me the history and core of the B'hai faith. He told me of the commitment to justice and equality central to its goal of elevating humanity, and also spoke of the persecution that came down on these people from day one. He said of Baha'ula, the first martyr of the faith that he had told the people " I offer up my life as a sacrifice to your love". Later that night, during the concert, I, along with 750,000 in the radio audience heard Dizzy speak these same words himself. If you know what he did to bring peace to Cuba, the mid-east, Russia and practically *everywhere* else in the world, these words help you understand *who* Dizzy was.

About 2/3 of the way thru the concert, Dizzy came over to me during a sax solo and said, "Hey, man, do you want to sit in?" I thought about half a heartbeat and said, "Sure!". After all, I'd done more than most public servants to avoid conflict of interest and already felt like the eunuch in a harem among all this great music with my idols just footsteps away! But then, tune after tune ended with no summons from the maestro.

It was during the encore that Dizzy asked the audience's indulgence, and said of me, "In addition to being a great young administrator, he's also a pretty good drummer, and so, with your permission, we'd like to invite him to play with us" To my eternal gratitude, the spirits let me join in, with a feeling not unlike going fishing and hooking Moby Dick, as the currents and eddys of these living legends took the music now this way, then that. I held my own, and this portion of the concert also got broadcast, providing me with my claim to fame: Dizzy Gillespie called me a "pretty good drummer" in front of 3/4 million people.

In the years since, the birth of my second child motivated me to earn a living, instead of playing, and I picked up the computer as my next instrument. After 6 years in business, I decided to return to teaching, since I saw that kids needed to be taught to use computers as thinking and communicating tools. Last April, I joined your ranks as teacher out to promote global understanding thru our youth. Not so far from what Dizzy was about, is it?

In conclusion, Dizzy, you have given an example for all who will see it of the difference one life can make, in how all of us hear, in helping us transcend our limiting beliefs, in getting past historical and geographical boundaries, towards a vision of *one* world in which everyone is challenged to find out how far they can go!

Thu, 7 Jan 1993

Ferdi Serim
internet: wwp@tigger.jvnc.net
West Windsor/Plainsboro Schools phone: (609) 799-0087
Upper Elementary School
75 Grovers Mill Rd.
Plainsboro, NJ 08536 USA

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