"I'm driving down to Washington," Rene Berard tells me. "Late tomorrow night. I have an interview with one of the execs from Tennis International." Rene is calling from Providence, and I'm home in Woonsocket. "These people are providing me with five-star accommodations including a suite at the Dupont Plaza. Now understand, this will be about a one-hour interview. The rest of the time we can party in our nation's capital. Wanna go?"
When we hit the D.C. Beltway at sunrise, Rene bought a Washington Post and announced that we were going to a joint called Blues Alley in Georgetown. "Dizzy Gillespie is playing, and I voted Dizzy for President."
Me, I was up for anything. But not as juiced as Rene about seeing Dizzy. I had a flashback to my high school years, my introductory era to jazz. A buddy of mine, Stevie Max, whom I went to my first Newport Jazz Festival with in 1958, told me Dizzy was a clown. "Joking around was more important to him than playing," Stevie said. And for years that left an impression on me.
This was late February in 1985 and it was 80 degrees in Washington.
Turns out the real heat that night would be coming from the stage at Blues Alley.
We had a great table, close up and in the center of the room. As soon as the spotlight illuminated Dizzy on stage, he announced, "GILLESPIE'S MY NAME AND MUSIC IS MY GAME."
He then raised his shiny gold, magical trumpet to the roof, those Gillespian cheeks filled with air, his lips disappeared into the mouthpiece, and he jumped right into "Manteca." The groove was tight, loud, and straight-ahead bebop jazz, a genre he invented with alto great Charlie Parker. I was captivated and captured – hook, line and sinker. This was the best, the maestro with game face on, all business. The clowning part of his performance was strictly show-biz schtick. I wanted to stick a voodoo needle into Stevie Max.
At the conclusion of the first set, Rene tapped me on the shoulder. I knew he'd brought a few recreational drugs along. Rene's a tennis pro, and was all about recreation. He wanted me to take a walk with him to the men's room so I could "cover the door" while he did what he had to do.
When we entered the lav located on the second floor, Rene locked himself inside the cubicle. Much to my surprise, standing at a commode was Dizzy Gillespie, the grand maestro himself, taking a hearty whiz. We were the only people in the room. I was awe-stricken. Oddly, I saw him make a strange, twitching full-body movement. Then the trumpet man, like some outraged Brahma bull, released a blast of gas that nearly knocked me across the room. Oh my. It was explosive.
I couldn't restrain myself. "Well Mr. Gillespie, now I've heard you play from your better set of cheeks!"
He bounced up and down, still squirting away, missing the bowl, and laughing his ass off.
"I like dat, I like dat one." He spoke in a heavy-deep drawl, "You're a baaad muther f--ker, muther f--ker." He zipped up, made sure everything was in place, and said, "C'mon, take a walk with me."
What? He's asking me to take a walk with him?
I followed, not getting too close in case of a sneak attack.
His dressing room was small, but filled with people. He offered me a drink, which I graciously accepted, and he explained to his friends how we just met. "Best set of cheeks; sheeet, that's the best one-liner I've heard this year." He sat down at a table and started playing cards with a heavyset accountant from Cleveland, and continued talking to me.
Then, without any prompting, Mr. Gillespie started giving an oration about the blues.
"I can guarantee ya one thing. The blues, in it's truest sense, brings the greatest pain of all. I'm talkin about when your chick has up and left ya, and ya didn't want her to leave. Jilted is what I'm talkin about. That's feelin the blues. Nothin like it, ya hear. Worse than havin a loved one buy the farm. Shit, them folks are dead and gone. When your chick is out there bangin some other cat, while you're home layin on the sofa guzzling Jack, eatin your heart and soul out, plottin, feelin endless aches of the heart, that's the blues all right. Badness, ya know. Listen to Pops, Billy, Ella, Etta James, and BB the King. They sing it like it is. They knows bout the blues, baby. Me too. See what I'm sayin?"
We spent a good half hour asking questions and sharing information, as though we were supposed to, if that made any sense. It was so easy and natural being with him; like family. We talked about my home state of Rhode Island, how he enjoyed performing at the annual Jazz Festival. "Newport ain't no smoke-filled, jazzy city room. It's big and open, like playin in Yankee Stadium. Over 10,000 folks come from all over to pay respect. And, ya know, I don't live that far away, in Englewood, NJ."
As we all headed downstairs for the second set, he stopped and said, "That was fun. You blew me away with, 'my better set of cheeks.' Here's a little memento from me to you. It'll bring you good luck." He handed me a small shiny lapel pin. "If you ever run into 'the Whale' up there in New England, show it to him."
"Uh huh. Charley 'The Whale' Lake Keljakian. Keljakian means lake in Armenian. He's my business manager and he's from Revere Beach in Massachusetts."
"I know Revere Beach. That's where the Wonderland dog track is."
"And that's where you'll find the Whale. He calls me Birks."
"OK. Thanks for the pin, Dizzy. I feel very privileged. Hey, I got a question?"
"Can I call you John?"
"Hell yeah, you can call me anytime. Actually John is my given name. I like dat."
"Good, so do I, cuz I don't think you're very dizzy, Dizzy."
"Thanks, David. Hey, you made my night. Enjoy the second set. It's usually the best."
As we parted company, he said to me, "Ya know, the best cymbals, Zildjian, are made in Armenia."
"Is that why you hired the Whale?"
"Huh, never thought of it that way before." John pointed his finger at me. "Naw, the Whale's my main man. He a baad muther f--ker, just like you."
When I got back to the table, Rene was all wired up, in a major tizzy, eyes all red and blurry, and his nose dripping. "Where you been, amigo? I looked all over for you, thought you were dead, or shanghaied, or somethin. Did you hear that fart?"
What could I tell him? Throughout the night, I kept looking at John's pin. It was circular with a trumpet in the middle, the bell turned up. John's calling card. On the back it read, "Made in France." Throughout the night I took loads of notes.
Excerpt from Shadowing Dizzy Gillespie