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As the Diz Turns: Memories of Dizzy Gillespie, from Michael Bourne's forthcoming book

Dizzy Gillespie and Michael Bourne
courtesy of Michael Bourne

If you know Michael Bourne at all, you probably know him as a voice on the air at WBGO. As he prepares to step away from the microphone, Michael has been reflecting on his extraordinary life in jazz with a work-in-progress memoir tentatively titled Four Epiphanies (and then some). Here's a highlight, about trumpet icon Dizzy Gillespie.

"Is it 1:30 yet?"

Dizzy in the doorway. Dizzy in his underpants. Briefs.

"No," I answered, following Dizzy Gillespie into the suite.

"Tell me when it's 1:30," said the Diz.

He was staying at a hotel a block from my apartment in Bloomington. He was playing at a pub where all the jazz cats played, the Bluebird.

I'd known him for years. I was never certain if he remembered or ever knew my name, but he always seemed to recognize me and welcome me.

Night of the gig, "Run some warm water through the horn" he said, handing me THE HORN.

Dizzys' horn. A trumpet with the bell bent up and pointing ever-heavenward.

I stumbled through the crowd, headed for the sink behind the bar. I'd never heard of water run through a trumpet. And in the crowd was a trumpeter I knew. "Dizzy wants me to run water through" — I gasped, in hopes he'd tell me it was cool, but he was speechless, awestruck. As if in the cradle of my hands was the Grail.

And out of the crowd behind me came Dizzy. "Run some water," he said as he ran some water down the iconically bent bell.

Dizzy Gillespie
Roland Godefroy/Wikipedia
Dizzy Gillespie

"Is it 1:30 yet?"

Next afternoon, I called him at the hotel. "Need anything?"

"No," said Dizzy, "Just come over." And come over I came.

Dizzy's suite included a wet bar, and on the counter was about a bushel of carrots. Straight from the earth. Literally. Black with earth. Unwashed, and with all the green stalks. Next to a blender.

Dizzy pulled four or five carrots from the bunch. Didn't wash the dirt off. Didn't chop the stalks off. Shoved the carrots into the blender and turned on a whine and whirl of orange. And green. And dirt.

Dizzy filled a glass full of sludge from the blender. Orange and thick. With chunks of green. And dirt. "Want some? "

"Uh," I said, looking at the speckled orange sludge. "No, thanks."

Maybe there's nutrients in the earth, I was wondering.

Dizzy for President

"Is it 1:30 yet?"

"12:50, ten to one," I answered.

Dizzy's torso was round. When he squatted down to the floor, he folded his legs into a lotus and looked like a brown and leathery Buddha.

"Want to see the exercise the doctor gave me?" he said, uncoiling and pointing his legs straight out. And up. And down. Counting his leg lifts.

I couldn't remember his age or how many years since everyone sported a "Dizzy for President" T-shirt. Or balloon.

Several elections before, backstage after a concert at IU, I asked if he'd run for president in the then-upcoming election. Dizzy said not anymore, and I wrote a piece for DownBeat as if a news report on the wire: "John Birks Gillespie steps down as a candidate."

"I'm sorry you don't run for president anymore," I said as he lifted his legs.

"I'm forbidden by my religion," he said. "I am a Baha'i." And he quickly pulled a book from next to his bed. "Our prophet Baha'u'llah tells us," he said, thumbing through a gathering of Baha'i beliefs, "a Baha'i should not run for office." And, as I read for myself, being involved with politics was "divisive" and dangerous to a faith that believed in universal peace and unity among all races, nations, and religions.

I heard and often hung with Dizzy through the years.

On a Caribbean cruise with a Who's Who of jazz greats. Dizzy and Milt Hinton highlighted a boatful of memories remembering when, legendarily because of a spitball, Dizzy cut Cab Calloway.

At Carnegie Hall when Dizzy played duets and altogether with about a dozen master drummers, all staggered on platforms around the stage like a collage.

At jazzfests in Berlin, Nuremberg, and New York with his United Nation Orchestra, especially in Montreux, when some festival goons hurt Dizzy's managers backstage and the whole big band walked off.

At the only DownBeat Jazz Festival in Chicago in the mid-'60s, when at the climax of Muddy Waters playing "Mojo," out came the Diz dancing a boogaloo. And, with Al Grey and James Moody, they became Muddy's horn section. That festival in Chicago, 50+ years ago, was the first time I heard Dizzy live.

Kemoll's Chop House
Kemoll's Chop House in St. Louis.

When we first talked, in the early '70s, Dizzy was playing with his quintet at the Gourmet Rendezvous, a new jazz joint owned by KATZ jazz jock Spider Burks in my hometown, St. Louis. I happened to be home, and I invited Dizzy to lunch where I'd always go with a girlfriend. Kemoll's, not far from the gig and, on Grand Avenue, not far from my cathedral, Busch Stadium. I recorded and printed what I entitled "Fat Cats at Lunch" in DownBeat.

I remember best: Dizzy told me why the music he played with Charlie Parker was called Be-Bop. "Nobody could remember the titles of the tunes," said Dizzy. "I'd call 'Max Is Makin' Wax' and everyone would say 'Which one is that?' Then someone came up to me and said 'Will you play that tune 'Be-Bop?' I said 'What tune is that?' And he sang 'bee-yobba-doo-bah-de Be-Bop.' So we called the music Be-Bop."

I quote my Poetics professor: "It's a good story, so it must be true."

Dizzy also paralleled the evolution of jazz with religion: "First came Moses, then came Jesus, then came Mohammed, and then Baha'u'llah. Same as jazz. First came Louis Armstrong, then Roy Eldridge, then me, then —" He didn't name a next trumpet great. He said, "We thought it was gonna be Fats Navarro, but he died."

I remember also: Kemoll's is one of the great Italian restaurants in St. Louis. I ordered a calzone. Dizzy ordered Beef Stroganoff.

Dizzy Gillespie
Don Perdue/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Dizzy Gillespie performs in New York, c. 1988.

"Is it 1:30 yet?"

"Yes!" I said, excited like Dizzy but not knowing why.

He jumped to the TV and turned on As the World Turns. He sat at the edge of the bed, smiling and almost quivering like a happy kid.

I remembered when my mother and Grandma listened to their "stories" on radio and then watched on TV. As the World Turns was one of the everyday melodramas.

"That's Doctor Bob," said Dizzy with a sigh. "He's so good."

I don't remember what was happening on the soap. I wasn't watching the television. I was watching Dizzy.

"That bitch!" shouted Dizzy and leaped up. "I can't believe she did that!"

A couple of decades later, a fan of WBGO came on with me as a Host-an-Hour. Eileen Fulton played the virago Lisa on As the World Turns for almost 50 years. She was often a villain. "I was that bitch!" she screamed when I told the soap story. "I loved Dizzy," she said. "He came to the show once. I wanted him to play on the show, maybe in the band at the country club, but it never worked out."

When a commercial came on, Dizzy pulled out a joint. He lighted up and inhaled a cloud. And he offered it to me. I was never into weed, but a voice in my head said: "You're watching a soap opera with Dizzy Gillespie. You're already down the rabbit hole!"

I inhaled a cloud myself — and I have not smoked a joint in the 40+ years since then. That's so I always can say "No, thanks. I haven't smoked dope since I was watching a soap opera with Dizzy Gillespie."

Michael Bourne was a presence on the air at WBGO between the end of 1984 and the start of 2022, when he retired from full time hosting duty. He is the host of the Singers Unlimited Podcast by WBGO Studios. Previously, he hosted the popular Singers Unlimited (1985-2022). He also hosted the equally popular Blues Break for several years. Michael is a senior contributor to Down Beat, with the magazine since 1969. Doctor Bourne earned a PhD in Theatre from Indiana University -- which comes in handy when he's a theatre critic for the WBGO Journal.