Remembering the great ‘Diz’

Ken Burns is the greatest documentary writer-producer in the history of television, and I’ll fight anybody who says otherwise. Sure, I’ll probably lose and run home crying, but that’s not what’s important here.

If you watched Burns’ brilliant PBS series, Jazz, you’ve had a taste of one of the most important and influential legends in the pantheon of American music. He was an unbelievably gifted musician who shattered every cliché: a stunning talent with flawless technique, a towering intellect and a deep, abiding love of mischief. And so they called him Dizzy.

I’d headed east from Nevada in quest of fame and fortune, snagging the doorman-emcee-standup comic-bartender gig at the Three Deuces club on 52nd Street in New York City, a now-extinct strip joint owned by “Midge” Costello, brother of Frank. Because our house piano-man was the legendary Art Tatum, this was where the cream of New York’s jazz musicians gathered nightly for, sadly, never-recorded—but unforgettable—pre-dawn jam sessions.

Just prior to show time, Gillespie noticed me dart into the club, swivel-hip my way between crowded tables while shedding a cumbersome pseudo-military overcoat and, in a matter of seconds, appear on the stage wearing the shiny tuxedo I’d won from a songwriter in a gin rummy game at the Brill Building.

Gillespie thought the whole multi-gig setup was hysterical, and over the following years we forged a definite odd-couple friendship.

Don’t misunderstand. We weren’t best friends. Hardly. He was a giant, respected and admired on five continents, a celebrated international figure. I was a jerky kid trying to make a buck and survive long enough to find my way around a typewriter.

My time and travels with Diz became a unique education over colorful years in colorful places … the then-new Convention Center in Las Vegas, the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, the Kon-Tiki Club on Sunset Strip (where he insisted that Miles Davis be civil to me, even though I wasn’t black), the Duomo in Milano, Italy, Leonard Bernstein’s sumptuous dressing room at Lincoln Center, the Lighthouse at Hermosa Beach, the Vine Street Theater with Steve Allen …

The most shining moment of all my travels with Dizzy happened one sunny Mediterranean morning at the palatial entrance of the Metropole Hotel in Athens. He’d paused at the top of the hotel’s broad steps and asked me to shoot his picture. As he waited, while I focused the camera from the steps below, a wizened little man, elegantly dressed and carrying a gold-headed walking cane, came out the revolving door, spotted him, tottered over and planted himself right smack in front of Dizzy’s face.

Gillespie, always a gentleman, smiled courteously despite his impromptu photo session being so abruptly interrupted. He spoke kindly to the elderly fellow. “May I help you?”

“You’re Dizzy Gillespie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thought so. I’m a big fan of yours.” Dizzy smiled and nodded in courteous acknowledgement of the familiar words of praise.

After a moment’s pause, the old man stuck out a bony hand. “Always wanted to meet you,” he said. “My name is Cole Porter.”

Diz lost it. His eyes popped; his jaw dropped open and stayed there. For the first time in all the years I had known him, John Birks Gillespie was speechless.

And then he draped his arm carefully across the older man’s frail shoulders, turned him gently toward the camera and, with a huge grin, said, “Say ‘cheese,’ Mr. Porter.”

Dizzy Gillespie. I’d miss him more if I thought such a spirit could die.