Friday, August 25, 2006

Intimations of an Immortal


I first visited Birdland in NYC when I was 16. My friends Connie and David's family loved jazz and played it constantly. This was as magical as the loaves and fishes to me as I was forced to listen to music furtively in my room because my parents had no appreciation for jazz and favored Gilbert and Sullivan.

Miracles happen sometimes, and they allowed me to go to Birdland if my older brother went along as chaperone. So Connie, David, my brother and I drove into Manhattan and found a table in the famous nightclub with thick blue smoke hanging like a solid entity halfway down from the ceiling.

Dizzy Gillespie was playing, and he sat at our table during all his breaks as he and Connie seemed to share a genuine, strong connection. He was a charming man with natural elegance and an intellectual fascination with everything, and he encouraged us to stretch our minds, too. He was friendly, outgoing, kind and humorous, and while I knew I was in the presence of greatness, I'm not sure I realized quite how great he was until later because he was so unaffected and egoless. Or maybe I did, as I bought all his albums and played them until the grooves disappeared.

My brother returned to college and my friends continued to bootleg me into Birdland while my parents thought I was at other girls' slumber parties. Whenever Dizzy was there, we were there. Charlie Parker was also on the bill once, but Dizzy was our destination, our god. He was a king among men.

A few years later, Connie gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie's only child, a chubby angel named Jeanie but called Tootsie by all. When she was three, I watched in awe as she sat in front of a blaring loudspeaker and arranged pickup sticks in perfect rhythm to the beat. At twelve she wore glasses, a mop of curls, and her trademark dimpled smile. She grew up as children do, and became an accomplished jazz singer. I've lost track of her family and Dizzy Gillespie died in 1993, but I still think of those Birdland nights as the best moments of my early adulthood.

The energy in that small, smoky club was electric. It took me to levels of awareness I had never imagined and opened a million doors in my young mind. Listening to those sublime musicians create new forms of art made me realize that there are no limits on the human spirit or our abilities if what we want to do is purely and simply the best that is in us.

In 1964, with his accustomed good humor, Dizzy Gillespie attempted to run for president, promising that if elected, the White House would be renamed The Blues House, Ray Charles would be appointed Librarian of Congress and Miles Davis head of the CIA. Imagine where we'd be now had he pulled that one off!

9 comments:

kwesi said...

We be jamming! Yeah mon.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

"Make Music, Not War..."

kwesi said...

BTW Heart, this was a great post. I'm a lover of story and it was great sitting at the table with you, being outlanding and rebellious for the sake of music, one of the other loves of my life. Here's to taking risk for the soul.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I think when it comes down to it, all risks are for the soul.

I love story, too. And music!

Glad you could make it to that table. :<)

Stephen said...

another personal acquaintance we have in common. I met Dizzy in 1973 when he played a week long engagement at a theatre I work at. What a lovely, funny man.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Hey, Birthday Boy, I had no idea you'd met him. He was, indeed, a beautiful and delightful man. And he performed until one month before he died! We should all enjoy such productive lives.

urban-urchin said...

Wow! What a cool story. It must have been amazing to *discover* jazz for yourself...

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Yeah, the great thing about jazz is that every time you hear it, you discover new things.

I also love chamber music, but it's all there already, the same notes that have been played for centuries, not open to interpretation in the same way as jazz, which is like a living thing.

That was my long answer. Short answer: YES.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Correction: In my response to Stephen's comment, I said that Dizzy performed a month before he died. He had cancer and couldn't. I had read Maynard Ferguson's obituary yesterday and somehow, they ran together in my head because I was thinking about Dizzy. I don't usually get my trumpeters confused. My bad.