Gilles Petard / Getty Images
Gilles Petard / Getty Images

Dizzy Gillespie for president: When politics was a groovier thing

There are many reasons to remember Dizzy Gillespie. His look, for one thing: the horn-rimmed glasses, pouched-out frog cheeks, and that trumpet, bent up at a 45-degree angle. The ground floor inventor of bebop, he had an unforgettable sound, a mastery of harmonic invention and implied chords, firing off fusillades of rhythmic phrasing. Gillespie was smart. He was funny. He played with Charlie Parker and influenced Miles Davis. Fifty years ago, he also ran for president.

It started as a joke, as so many serious things do. His booking agency had some “Dizzy Gillespie for president” buttons made around 1960, because, you see, it’s funny. Somebody even asked Gillespie why a black jazzman — a permanent member of the underclass if there ever was one — would even think of trying for the job. “Because we need one,” he said. 

“Anybody coulda made a better President than the ones we had in those times, dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world,” Gillespie wrote in his autobiography “To Be, or Not ... to Bop.” “I was the only choice for a thinking man.” He went on to offer a little doggerel on the subject:

I never thought the time would come when
I’d vote for Lyndon B.
But I’d rather burn in hell than vote for
Barry G.

The campaign was conceived by Jean Gleason — wife of Ralph Gleason, a music critic and founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine — and Ramona Crowell, a devoted fan. A rally was held in Chicago in the summer of 1963, and “Dizzy for president” buttons were soon sold to raise money for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

The campaign got its official theme song in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival. As Gillespie’s band played one of his signature songs, “Salt Peanuts,” vocalist Jon Hendricks delivered a reworked lyric at blinding speed:

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!

Hendricks understood the seriousness behind the campaign. “It shone a light on the whole thing,” he remembered. “Like, what about a black person running for president? It had never happened before ... It was to give both political parties, all those poseurs and jive talkers, a kick in the butt.”

“I had a real reason for running,” Gillespie wrote in his autobiography, “because the proceeds from the sale of buttons went to CORE, SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I could threaten Democrats with a loss of votes and swing them to a more reasonable position on civil rights.”

In 1964, Gillespie fans formed the John Birks Society (that being Gillespie’s real first and middle names, and a convenient swipe at the ultraconservative John Birch crowd) and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him on the ballot in California. Ultimately, the John Birks Society would have chapters in 25 states.

In the meantime, Gillespie perfected his stump speech. Many of his campaign promises, like changing the name of the White House to the Blues House, were humorous, but that was only sugarcoating the medicine. 

“All U.S. attorneys and judges in the South will be our people so we can get some redress,” Gillespie said on the stump. “‘One man, one vote’ — that’s our motto. We might even disenfranchise women [sic] and let them run the country. They’ll do it anyhow.”

I had a real reason for running, because I could threaten Democrats with a loss of votes and swing them to a more reasonable position on civil rights.

Dizzy Gillespie

Members of a cabinet were named, not as secretaries but as “the more appropriately dignified ‘minister.’” Drummer Max Roach apparently volunteered as minister of war, “but since we’re not going to have any,” as Gillespie said, Roach was given another role. Miles Davis was tapped as head of the CIA. Malcolm X, “one cat we definitely want to have on our side,” would serve as attorney general.

Trumpet legend Louis Armstrong was slated to head the Ministry of Agriculture. This must have been an inside joke if not an olive branch. In earlier years, bop musicians were dismissive of Armstrong, who hated their new style, calling him an Uncle Tom. Gillespie went so far as to refer to his “plantation image,” which is likely what inspired his pick for the agriculture job. (By the end of the 1960s, that hard line had softened. “If it hadn’t been for [Louis Armstrong], there wouldn’t have been none of us,” Gillespie was quoted as saying during the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival. “I want to thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.”)

More plans were laid out for a Gillespie administration. The National Labor Relations Board would require people applying for jobs “to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won’t know what they are until after they’ve been hired. The sheets, of course, will all be colored!” A black astronaut would be sent to the moon; Gillespie volunteered if no one else could be found.

Barry Goldwater offered a lame response to the Gillespie campaign by citing white Dixieland trombonist Turk Murphy as his favorite jazz musician. “All I can say is I don’t blame Turk for that,” Gillespie retorted. “I’m glad he didn’t pick me.”

Of course, Gillespie never had a chance. He campaigned into early 1964 and then, as Ramona Crowell said, “it sort of fizzled out.” Gillespie declared again in 1972, but withdrew when he found out that running for political office was against the principles of his newfound Baha’i faith.  

“I liked the idea of running for president, and it would’ve been nice to be elected,” he wrote in his autobiography, and then revealed the tremendous heart behind an apparent joke:

“I’d have fought for a disarmament program and the establishment of a world government, somewhere ... I would see that everyone had enough to eat and some clothes and a decent place to stay. Everybody, every citizen, is entitled to that. Education would be beautiful, free, subsidized by the government. All of it. Anytime you wanted to learn something, I’d pay you to do it. Hospitalization would also be free.

“The only bona fide politician who paid any serious attention to my political ideas,” Gillespie’s autobiography continued, “was a woman.” Barbara Jordan, a representative from Texas, wore a “Dizzy Gillespie for president” button on the floor of the House. In recalling this, Gillespie lamented that Jordan had not been nominated for a major post in Jimmy Carter’s administration, adding, “That would’ve been great, wouldn’t it?”

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