Dizzy Gillespie, bebop Baha’i, continues to inspire

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, who became a Baha’i in 1968, would have been 90 this Oct. 21. He was at the forefront not only of the bebop jazz phenomenon, the most vital music of its age, but of a jazz generation that included Thelonious Monk, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

Mr. Gillespie was born almost exactly 100 years after the birth of Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith, which Gillespie espoused the last quarter century of his life (he died in 1993 at age 76).

Bebop musicians, it has been said, play to make others sound good. This co-operative model, consistent with teachings of the Baha’i Faith, wasn’t just a philosophy to Mr. Gillespie or something rehearsed for interviews.

Dizzy GillespieWatching his opening act from the wings at a concert in Los Angeles, he noticed the sustain pedal on the piano had fallen off, making it impossible for the pianist to hold the chords accompanying Carmen McRae singing a ballad. Mr. Gillespie promptly grabbed his trumpet and unobtrusively went onstage to fix the problem.

Mr. Gillespie was beloved by Baha’is and musicians, which sometimes turned out to be one and the same: In 1992 during the Second Baha’i World Congress, held in New York City, Mr. Gillespie’s colleague Mike Longo, who preceded him in joining the Baha’i Faith, arranged a 75th birthday tribute with a star-studded cast of friends at Carnegie Hall.

Tributes have not ceased since then. He is the ongoing subject of papers and reminiscences; films of his tours are now online, and periodic jazz colloquia are presented in his name. A new CD is set for release featuring Baha’i keyboardist John Ebata, whose compositions were inspired by paintings by Baha’i artist Lorraine Pritchard, which in turn were inspired by listening to Mr. Gillespie’s recordings.

The 90th anniversary of Dizzy’s birth has inspired tributes all across America. Among them is the Chicago Jazz Ensemble’s “Celebrating Genius: Happy 90th Birthday to Nat, Diz, Ella & Monk” on March 14 at the Harris Theater.

Other tributes included two in Washington, D.C., “In the Footsteps of Dizzy” and “To Dizzy With Love,” and a third concert there featuring Iron Curtain performers who in their formative years could listen to Gillespie only over Voice of America radio.

Mr. Gillespie first learned of the Baha’i Faith from Beth McKenty, a Canadian traveling teacher who telephoned him in Milwaukee out of the blue and invited herself over; she was inspired to do so after reading about his co-originator of bebop, Charlie Parker, who claimed Mr. Gillespie was the “other half of his heart.”

Suspicious of her offer, Mr. Gillespie flatly refused, but Ms. McKenty was undaunted and suggested she and her husband attend the club where he was playing, to which he agreed.

She and a fellow travel mate subsequently caught up with Mr. Gillespie in various towns where he was performing. After having established his receptivity by discerning his views on the state of the world and its future, Ms. McKenty began sending Mr. Gillespie pamphlets on the Baha’i Faith.

He was especially impressed with William Sears’ book Thief in the Night. When he decided to become a believer in Baha’u’llah, Mr. Gillespie flew to Los Angeles from San Francisco to meet with Mr. Sears.

In 1978, Mr. Gillespie gave President Jimmy Carter a book of sacred Baha’i writings. And each time the musician received an award, of which there were many, he mentioned the Baha’i Faith in his thank-you speeches.

Mr. Gillespie’s greatest melding of his religious beliefs with the ideals of jazz was his United Nations Orchestra, which revived his career in the 1980s. He formed the orchestra along the lines of the Baha’i principle of unity in diversity, perhaps his key inspiration.

“The Baha’is believe in unity, but unity with diversity, to make it prettier,” he is quoted as saying in To Be Or Not to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie. “You always think about what you can do to make it prettier.”


Reprinted with permission from the Baha’is of the United States
(see U.S. Baha’i News)