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

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