(Jun 15, 2015, 3:52 PM PDT)
“Standing anxiously at the stage door, Dizzy finally exited the building and Dave Usher had the gaul to offer Dizzy and his wife a ride to his hotel. Diz graciously accepted. It was during the great depression and many fourteen-year-olds were driving cars because their fathers were away in the service. That spur of the moment meeting and short ride to Dizzy’s hotel was the beginning of nearly five decades of friendship.”
Book Review – “Music Is Forever
Dizzy Gillespie, The Jazz Legend And Me”
By Dave Usher With Berl Falbaum
This biography is a captivating piece of musical history told through the words of a good friend of Dizzy Gillespie. It seemed most appropriate during Black Music Month that I share my opinion and review this historic book.
For many years, Detroiter Dave Usher made a profitable living in the oil cleanup business. However, his real passion was jazz and one of his idols was Dizzy Gillespie. Admittedly, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and Dave Usher were the odd couple. No one could have predicted they would become life-long friends, least of all Dave Usher. As the author writes in Chapter One of his enlightening autobiography:
“I was born in the North; in Detroit. Dizzy was born in the South in Cheraw, South Carolina. I was the youngest of five children; he was the youngest of nine. I had limited musical talent; Dizzy taught himself to play the trombone and trumpet at the age of ten. I grew up in a home that listened exclusively to classical music; Dizzy was exposed to blues and jazz almost from birth, given his father was a bandleader in Cheraw. I was Jewish; he a believer in the Baha’i Faith to which he converted when he was about fifty. Dizzy grew up in a Methodist household. Oh yes. I was white; he was black, or more accurately, colored or Negro as African-Americans were called at the time.”
In 1944, when young Dave Usher was a precocious fourteen-year-old, he took his teen date to the Paradise Theatre where Dizzy was playing in the trumpet section of Billy Eckstine’s band. At that time, the popular Paradise Theatre was pretty much a black venue in the Motor City. The young man, who loved jazz, waited after the show, like the groupie that he was. Standing anxiously at the stage door, Dizzy finally exited the building and Dave Usher had the gaul to offer Dizzy and his wife a ride to his hotel. Diz graciously accepted. It was during the great depression and many fourteen-year-olds were driving cars because their fathers were away in the service. That spur of the moment meeting and short ride to Dizzy’s hotel was the beginning of nearly five decades of friendship.
Usher’s biography traces his friendship through the years with the great jazz trumpeter. Much to his family’s dismay and disapproval, he ultimately created a record company that not only recorded Dizzy, but made many great jazz records. He also became a producer at Chess records, presiding over their Argo label. His historic recordings of a European Tour with Dizzy were eventually released to wide acclaim. In June of 1978, he was on-site when Dizzy Gillespie was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter and witnessed President Carter, the peanut plantation king, onstage singing “Salt Peanuts” with Gillespie, much to the chagrin and shock of the press and jazz luminaries present.
This book is full of facts and interesting trivia from the perspective of a full-fledged jazz fan who became a personal friend to Dizzy and his family. It gives the reader a very private insight into the legendary jazz musician and the man himself through the eyes of his lifelong comrade. It’s a page-turner, written like a personal diary, that documents some of the extraordinary times and accomplishments of Dizzy Gillespie, including being awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Choreographer Katherine Dunham was honored at the same event. Dizzy flew straight from a gig in Brazil to the event and unfortunately, when they called his name, he was fast asleep. It was Dave Usher (the author) who nudged him awake so he could be honored for his trail-blazing work as a musician who helped elevate jazz and for sharing his devine trumpet talent with listeners worldwide. He was lauded for his Bebop style and being one of the founders of Bebop. As President and Barbara Bush sang his praises and hung the Medal of Honor around Dizzy’s neck, he suddenly looked down, discovering his zipper was down. Usher got a photograph of the event, documenting the story and was offered $5,000 for the black and white priceless photo. You’ll see it in his book. This is only one of several humorous antidotes documented.
Dizzy Gillespie was born October 21, 1917 and died January 6, 1993. He left behind a legacy of music, but he also left a legacy of truth, honor, dignity, compassion and activism. He was an activist for freedom in his own special way. After all, jazz itself is the music of freedom. I didn’t know it was Dizzy who assisted Arturo Sandoval’s escape from Cuba to relocate in the United States. It was this brave, yet humble human being, who demanded that poor children in Brazil be allowed to attend his concerts for free.
Dizzy would not let anyone define his friends or fellow musicians by the colors of their skin, their religions or their cultures. In his name, the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund was created by the Englewood Hospital in New Jersey to assist needy musicians and underwrite diagnostic tests, surgery and medical care for jazz musicians who are uninsured. He was a friend and supporter of Paul Robeson, and said the award he treasured most, (of all the many he received) was the Paul Robeson Award from Rutgers University Institute for Jazz Studies. Gillespie traveled the planet as an ambassador of peace and goodwill for the United States of America, because he loved music, he loved people and he loved his country. This very personal memoir shows the true character of this iconic man and his music through the eyes of the sensitive author, Dave Usher, one of his best friends.
Usher’s final chapter reflects on the Gillespie legacy that his friend left behind, using numerous quotes from various close friends and musical associates. Below are pieces from some of those quotes he recorded during time on the road with the great Dizzy Gillespie.
Mike Longo, pianist who played with Dizzy for 24 years:
“He was a musical prophet … he was to our music what Jesus and Mohammed and Moses were to religion. When he put his horn to his mouth, he was as serious as a heart attack.”
Lalo Schifrin, composer, pianist and conductor: “When I heard Dizzy for the first time … I was 16 years old … in Buenos Aires. Many years later, I told an audience, I have had many teachers but only one master – Dizzy Gillespie.”
Benny Golson, tenor saxophonist:“My life had two beginnings: when I was born and when I first heard Dizzy. He changed my life forever with his music. How glad I am that I was born in his time!”
Stanley Crouch, poet, novelist and jazz critic: “Dizzy Gillespie was a very unusual person because he was such a remarkable musical intellectual … I mean he wasn’t on the second floor; he wasn’t on the third floor; he wasn’t on the fifth floor. Wherever the penthouse of musical intellect was, he had a room up there.”
Claudio Roditi, trumpet, flugelhorn:“I think that Aly Shipton, author of the Dizzy biography, “Groovin’ High, the Life of Dizzy Gillespie”, captured the essence of Dizzy’s untiring and constant efforts to achieve world unity when he wrote:
“From the ideal platform of his United Nation orchestra, with its path breaking fusion of musical styles from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, he demonstrated the commitment to the principles of unity, peace and brotherhood of which he spoke so often. He ended his autobiography with the wish that he would be remembered as a humanitarian.”
We will remember you Dizzy, as a humanitarian, a gifted musician, arranger and composer of jazz music, but even more, we will remember you as a man of change who brought joy and awe to a worldwide audience.