Let's swing the vote

In 1964, Dizzy Gillespie ran for the US presidency on an anti-racism, pro-bebop platform. Sholto Byrnes looks back on the very brief political career of one very cool cat

From Bill Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" to Bob Dole's unlikely choice of Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll Part Two", a key feature of every US presidential campaign is the pop or rock tune adopted to gee up supporters. But there's only ever been one candidate who wrote his own tune and had the great bebop vocalist Jon Hendricks create the lyrics: "Your politics oughta be a groovier thing, so get a good president who's willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!" And he's the same candidate who wanted to change the name of the White House to the Blues House, install Duke Ellington as Secretary of State and revoke the citizenship of the racist southern governor George Wallace and deport him to Vietnam.

From Bill Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" to Bob Dole's unlikely choice of Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll Part Two", a key feature of every US presidential campaign is the pop or rock tune adopted to gee up supporters. But there's only ever been one candidate who wrote his own tune and had the great bebop vocalist Jon Hendricks create the lyrics: "Your politics oughta be a groovier thing, so get a good president who's willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!" And he's the same candidate who wanted to change the name of the White House to the Blues House, install Duke Ellington as Secretary of State and revoke the citizenship of the racist southern governor George Wallace and deport him to Vietnam.

Forty years ago Lyndon Johnson didn't just beat Barry Goldwater for the presidency. He faced another challenger, a man whose puffed cheeks blew a musical revolution through his 45 degree-tilted trumpet: John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie.

Perhaps because they didn't think his programme worth studying, political historians have consistently overlooked Dizzy's run for the presidency. But, in so far as he was ever serious about anything, Gillespie took the campaign seriously enough to come up with a platform and nominate his cabinet. The John Birks Society, formed to organise on his behalf, was active in 25 states and petitioned to place Dizzy's name on the ballot in California. In the end, Gillespie withdrew. As he put it in his autobiography, To Be, Or Not... To Bop: "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." On the way, however, he drew extra attention to the issue of race and provided disaffected voters with something markedly different from the mainstream duopoly; and, of course, had a lot of fun.

The idea for the campaign was dreamt up by Jean Gleason, wife of the jazz critic Ralph Gleason, and Ramona Crowell, a longtime fan of Dizzy's who first met him while seeking his permission to use his image on a T-shirt. "It was at the Black Hawk in San Francisco," recalls Crowell. "He tried to hit on me because he didn't know that I was married." Gillespie asked her to meet him at his hotel the next day to discuss the T-shirt. "I said I would," says Crowell, "but Ralph Gleason warned me not to go up to his room, because Dizzy was a notorious womaniser." Assured that there were other people present, Crowell eventually did go to the room, where she found a group of people drinking "gallon jugs of wine", and after an afternoon of drinking and eating, Gillespie gave his permission.

In the summer of 1963 the Gleasons begun the campaign with a rally in Chicago, and soon "Dizzy for President" badges were to be seen at Core (Congress of Racial Equality) rallies around the country. That September the operation gathered momentum at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where Hendricks wrote the lyrics to the campaign song - it was sung to the tune of an old Gillespie number, "Salt Peanuts" - and performed it with Dizzy's quintet. It was also the first time that Dizzy met Ramona Crowell's husband, Kenney. "He hugged me and kissed me," says Ramona Crowell, "and then he turned to Kenney and said, 'How are you?' Kenney said: 'I'm okay, but I don't like you kissing my wife.' So Dizzy said, 'Oh, are you jealous?' And he went over, grabbed both of Kenney's cheeks and gave him a big kiss on the mouth."

Ramona Crowell was by this point Dizzy's vice-presidential running-mate. Miles Davis was pencilled in as director of the CIA, Louis Armstrong as Minister of Agriculture, Thelonious Monk was to be Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary, and other cabinet members were to include Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman and Count Basie. According to Dizzy, the drummer Max Roach wanted to be Minister of War, but was overruled, because, said the candidate, "We're not going to have any." The Library of Congress was to be in the charge of Ray Charles, and Charles Mingus was to be Minister of Peace, "because he'll take a piece of your head faster than anybody I know".

Dizzy's campaign promised that if he was elected, he would fight for civil rights and equal opportunity in the job market. To ensure that employers were truly blind to race, Dizzy proposed that those applying for jobs would "have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won't know what they are until after they've been hired". He promised to end the war in Vietnam and to give full diplomatic recognition to China (which the US was not to do until 1979). Healthcare and education were both to be free.

In recognition of his most loyal constituency, Dizzy said he would push for the creation of civil service nightclubs where jazz musicians would be guaranteed work as government employees. Nasa was also to be instructed to send a black astronaut to the moon. When the Gillespie campaign couldn't find any qualified applicants, the candidate volunteered to go himself.

Dizzy spent time on the campaign into early 1964, during his residency at Birdland in New York, although after he failed to get on the ballot in California (he claimed he "almost" got on), as Ramona Crowell puts it: "It sort of fizzled out." But Dizzy always insisted that it had not been just a publicity stunt. "Anybody coulda made a better president than the ones we had in those times," he wrote, "dilly-dallying about protecting blacks in their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world. I didn't think there was any choice. I had a real reason for running because the proceeds from the sale of the buttons went to Core and SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose president was Dr Martin Luther King, Jr], and I could threaten the Democrats with a loss of votes and swing them to a more reasonable position on civil rights."

"It shone a light on the whole thing," says Hendricks. "Like, what about a black person running for president? It had never happened before. At the same time, black people were saying to the Democrats, 'We don't have to vote for you.' It was to give both political parties, all those poseurs and jive-talkers, a kick in the butt."

Ramona Crowell thinks the political process in America has been "downhill ever since" 1964. Like many involved in the "Dizzy for President" campaign, she is not a fan of the White House's current incumbent. "We've all," she warns, "got to get our mojos working."

'Vote Dizzy! An Evening with his Royal Hipness Lord Buckley' is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (020-7478 0100; www.sohotheatre.com) to 6 November

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans is the favourite to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing