Showing Your Ass

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
"Showing Your Ass"- Excerpt from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Duke Ellington believed that the impact of his own work had been lessened by its having been categorized as "jazz," and he warned Gillespie not to let his music be limited by anyone else's label. But in his eagerness to win a big following and keep his band together, the younger man paid no attention. "If you've got enough money to play for yourself," he said, "you can play anything you want to. But if you want to make a living at music, you've got to sell it."

Nobody ever worked harder to sell his music than Gillespie did. He was a dervish onstage, hurtling through breakneck solos solos in the highest register, then jitterbugging, singing, swapping jokes with comedians, wearing funny hats. "Comedy is important" he explained many years later. "As a performer, when you're trying to establish audience control, the best thing is to make them laugh if you can.... When you get people relaxed, they're more receptive what you're trying to get them to do. So times, when you're laying on something, over their heads, they'll go along with it if they're relaxed." Gillespie did so much to make them laugh during one concert at Carnegie Hall that Louis Armstrong came backstage afterward to tell him he was overdoing it. "You're cutting the fool there, boy. Showing your ass."

For better or worse, Gillespie allowed himself to become the public face of bebop. The Morris agency billed him as "The Mad Genius of Music" and encouraged the press to write colorful stories about his dark rimmed glasses and goatee, his berets, the leopard-skin jackets he sometimes wore onstage, the cheeks that puffed alarmingly when he played, and, later, the distinctive upthrust bell of his trumpet, which he said helped him hear himself better- everything except his music. When Life planned a big picture story on the new music autumn of 1948, Gillespie proved all too willing to play along and even helped persuade the uniformly dignified Benny Carter to cooperate for the camera.

They made us perform a bebop greeting for them. "Hi-ya, man!" "Bells, man where you been?" Giving the sign of the flatted fifth, a raised open hand. "Eel-ya-da!" We gave a handshake sign that we were playing triplets, ending with an elaborate handshake. That was supposed to be the bebop-per's greeting, but there was no such thing in real life. It was just a bunch, of horseplay we went through so they could pretend we were something weird.
Gillespie even pretended to be a convert to Islam, posing in his bedroom with his head bowed toward Mecca because a small but growing number of his contemporaries had become Muslims. He understood the impulse that had made some young black musicians turn eastward-"They've been hurt," he told one writer, with tears in his eyes-and he later bitterly regretted having participated in what he called "blasphemy."

But by 1948, Gillespie's salesmanship seemed to be working. "Dizzy's male fans" wrote New Yorker writer Richard d Boyer,

most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties, express their adoration for Gillespie by imitating him. They try to walk with his peculiar loose-jointed, bow-legged floppiness; try to force their laughter up into a soprano squeak; wear blue berets and shell-rimmed spectacles, as he does; smoke meerschaum pipes as he does; and assiduously cultivate on their own lower lips replicas of the tuft of hair that Dizzy wears on his.... He knows that his slightest mannerism of action or dress may be reproduced on an international scale.... In St. Louis he was photographed with the bottom buttons of his uniform, by chance, unfastened. After the picture appeared in a jazz music magazine, beboppers ... began leaving their shirts partly unbuttoned.
At one New York club where the Gillespie band played, the owner did a brisk business selling paste-on goatees to female admirers-and to male fans still too young to grow their own.


Excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music. Burns, Ken and Ward, Geoffrey C. U.S.A.: Alfred P. Knopf, 2000. 346-349.