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Remember when Dizzy Gillespie ran for president?




Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie kicked off his tongue-in-cheek run for president in 1964, right here in Los Angeles
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie kicked off his tongue-in-cheek run for president in 1964, right here in Los Angeles
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It's election season. A deep schism in the Republican Party has led to the nomination of one of the most galvanizing presidential candidates in American history. Democrats, on the other hand, have rallied behind a beltway insider with plenty of White House experience.

One candidate, however, has given disillusioned Americans hope for the future. We're not talking about Bernie, and we're not talking about Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, either. We're not even talking about this year's election.

It's 1964: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater and probably the hippest presidential candidate ever: jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie. And it all started here in Los Angeles. 

With his trumpet bell pointed sky high and his cheeks inflated to the size of softballs, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was one of the most recognizable jazz musicians of the 20th century. Aside from his importance as one of the prime architects of bebop, Gillespie was a style icon and a consummate showman.

At the age of 47, he added an unexpected title to his resume: presidential candidate. Offering himself up as a swinging alternative to Johnson and Goldwater, Gillespie spent most of 1964 campaigning from the bandstand. He even wrote a theme song for the campaign:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pVG95yHhsc

Gillespie hosted a midday press conference two months before the election at Shelly’s Manne Hole, the Hollywood nightclub run by jazz drummer Shelly Manne on Cahuenga Boulevard. In front of a bank of microphones and reporters from Jet, Billboard and DownBeat, Gillespie outlined his platform under the shabby glow of the world-famous jazz room, along with naming his cabinet appointees.

Ramona Crowell, the campaign's self-described "mover and shaker," was there. Crowell is the last surviving member of Gillespie’s proposed cabinet. She's 89 today. But she was more than a cabinet member. She was his campaign manager. She was also pretty realistic about his chances.

"I think he would’ve tried real hard to be business-like," she said. "But he was anything but. You could tell from his nickname what he was like."

Crowell, along with Jean Gleason, the wife of Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph Gleason, organized the campaign with a bit of merchandising genius: sweatshirts.

"I decided we should make Dizzy Gillespie sweatshirts, because I had seen a Beethoven sweatshirt," she said. "Dizzy was agreeable to it, and we did."

Though Gillespie never made it on the ballot, his tongue-in-cheek campaign struck a chord. Sales of campaign buttons and sweatshirts were donated to the Congress for Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A lot of Gillespie’s platform focused on civil rights concerns: he promised to deport George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, to Vietnam.

The cabinet appointments were the best part by far, though. Here's a bit of his campaign speech:

When I am elected president of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House to the Blues House. The title of ‘secretary’ will be replaced by the more appropriately dignified ‘minister.’ Miles Davis has offered to serve as minister of the Treasury, but I’ve persuaded him to head the CIA instead.

Although Bo Diddley applied first, I told him my choice is the great Duke Ellington for minister of State. He’s a natural and can con anybody. Louis Armstrong is set for minister of Agriculture. He knows all about raising those crops.

Behind every cabinet appointment was a more-or-less inside joke about the jazz legends Gillespie called peers. I don't know if we need to ask, but why Louis Armstrong for agriculture?

"The agriculture thing was because he grew dope," said Crowell, laughing. "I guess it was really good dope."

For minister of Peace? Charles Mingus.

“He was anything but a candidate for that," said Crowell. "He had a terrible temper. He was very overt in his dislike of anybody. And crabby!"

Again, candidate Gillespie:

And, after considering the qualifications and potential of a great many candidates, I have decided that the rabbi of modern jazz… the maharajah of contemporary music… one of the most creative and gifted and avant-garde young men I know – Thelonious Sphere Monk – will be booked for a four-year tour as roving ambassador plenipotentiary.

"He was not outgoing or friendly or anything like that," Crowell, whose title alternated between vice president and press secretary, said. "He wasn’t anybody’s choice for ambassador!”

In the end, Gillespie never held office, of course. His lighthearted campaign did help raise awareness of civil rights issues. Gillespie died in 1993, exactly two weeks before a saxophone-playing southerner took over the Oval Office.

Gillespie did get his chance to hang at the White House, though. In the summer of 1978, Gillespie was invited by then-president Jimmy Carter to participate in the White House Jazz Festival. The two duetted on an appropriate tune:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORhqJZfxxcI