With the midterm elections behind us and the rumors and prognostications already starting for the presidential election of 2012, let’s hope and pray for an inspiring candidate like the one we had in 1964. No, not Barry Goldwater or Lyndon B. Johnson - I mean John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie!
Dizzy’s presidential run began as something of a lark, and it never really developed much beyond that stage. A bunch of “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons had been created several years before for an unrelated publicity campaign. Jean Gleason, the wife of jazz critic Ralph Gleason, seems to have been the chief instigator of the campaign, mainly out of a desire for an alternative to the arch-conservative Goldwater other than LBJ. As Dizzy stated, “I was the only choice for the thinking man.”
She organized college rallies in California - at the University of the Pacific, San Francisco State, U.C. Berkeley, and elsewhere - and attempted to get Dizzy’s name on the ballot. There was even a “Dizzy for President” birthday ball on October 21, 1963, at Basin Street West in San Francisco. At a rally in East Menlo Park, Dizzy’s official campaign song was unveiled. Sung to the tune “Salt Peanuts,” it included the following lyrics:
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!
By 1964, his fans formed the John Birks Society, a takeoff on the radical right-wing John Birch Society, which was prominent at the time. The John Birks Society was active in 25 states. Asked why he, a jazz musician, was running for president, Dizzy replied, “Because we need one.” But as the civil rights movement began to pick up steam, Dizzy and his followers saw the campaign as something a little more substantial - a chance, at least, to show support. Proceeds from Dizzy’s presidential paraphernalia went to civil rights groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Anybody coulda made a better President than the ones we had in those times,” wrote Gillespie in To Be, or Not ... to Bop, “dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world.”
His platform included strengthening equal opportunity laws, free education for everybody, diplomatic recognition of China (he was way ahead of his time on this one), a national lottery to replace the income tax, and an end to the war in Vietnam. He thought NASA should have at least one black astronaut. On the less serious side, Dizzy promised that his first executive order if elected president would be to change the name of the White House to the “Blues House.” And he proposed the creation of civil service nightclubs, where musicians would actually be government workers and could play and get paid regularly (a federal bebop/Dixieland playing time ratio would probably need to be determined annually).
For his cabinet, Dizzy proposed getting rid of the title “Secretary” and replacing it with the more dignified “Minister.” Miles Davis would head the CIA, Max Roach would be Minister of Defense, Charles Mingus as Minister of Peace, Ray Charles would head the Library of Congress, Peggy Lee as Ministress of Labor, Malcolm X as Attorney General, Duke Ellington as Minister of State, and Thelonious Monk as Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary. (This last appointment is the only one that could be said to have come to pass.)Eventually, the whole thing sort of fizzled out, but not before making some serious points and having a lot of fun along the way. Gillespie did finally make it to the White House in 1978, where he sang “Salt Peanuts” (presumably with the original lyrics) for President Jimmy Carter.