Claiming that his first order of business as president would be changing the name of the White House to the Blues House, Dizzy Gillespie’s run for President in 1964 wasn’t as illogical (or comical) as it seems on the surface. (In fact, given the ignorance of one of our current major party nominees, it is easy to write that Dizzy put much more thought into his vision for the country, and was without question more evolved as a candidate). As election day approaches, it is time to ask ourselves, what better time than today for a candidate whose platform includes disbanding the FBI and giving major foreign ambassadorships to jazz musicians?
In his 1979 autobiography To Be, or not…to Bop, Dizzy devotes an entire chapter to the story of his experience as a candidate for the presidency. The entire chapter follows…
One time Adam Powell came over to see me at the Embers, and of course he smoked cigars. I went over to his table at intermission, and he pulled out one of those cigars. I said, “Wait a minute, hold it…” I went and got this big lighter, about six inches high and four inches wide, picked it up and mashed it, and it lit up for him. It’s a Shields, but it looks like a Zippo. That lighter had an inscription on the side: “To Dizzy Gillespie with kindest affection. From Moody and Margenia.” On the other side the inscription read, “The HNIC.” So when I lit the cigar, Adam laughed, man! Then he took it, and he read it. Moody was playing with me at the time, and he looked at Moody and said, “Tom…!”
“Turn it over, look on the other side,” I said.
He says, “The HNIC, what does that mean?”
“Oh, come on Adam, you know what HNIC means,” I said. A lot of people were at the table, about eight people. He asked me again so I went over and whispered in his ear, “That means ‘Head N—– in Charge!’”
“I gotta have one of them,” he told me.
I said, “Well, Adam, I’ll tell you what, you can get one, but you can’t have those same letters because I’m the HNIC! You can be the NNIC.” So I bought him one and had it inscribed, “To the NNIC which means the ‘Next N—– In Charge.’” Adam had it on his desk when I went down to Washington about a year or so later. Adam was hip, boy, but he outsmarted himself. He figured if Senator Dodd can do it, I can do it too. He thought he was ‘white.’ In Congress, he had some power! He thought he could do the same thing that the white man did and get away with it, but he was wrong because if you’re challenging something, you have to be prepared to be challenged and be clean enough to go all the way.
That’s why I thought I would run for President, to take advantage of the votes and publicity I’d receive and to promote change. It wasn’t just a publicity stunt. I made campaign speeches and mobilized people. I meant to see how many votes I could get, really, and see how many people thought I’d make a good President. Anybody coulda made a better President than the ones we had in those times, dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world. One time when I ran, Goldwater was running against Johnson. History records Johnson as a pretty good President, but at that time, I didn’t think there was any choice. I was the only choice for a thinking man.
The whole thing started largely as a result of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and the Newport Jazz Festival, both of which I supported. George Wein and I appeared, just prior to the Festival and the March, on ‘Youth Wants to Know,’ a nationally televised interview program aimed at the young-spirited audience, and a panel of students interviewed me.
Q: Mr. Gillespie, why don’t we see more Negro performers on television?
DG: I wish I could answer that question. There is discrimination there.
Q: Mr. Gillespie, in Washington, D.c., there is a special television network, so to speak, which caters to Negroes. It’s made up of Negroes, it has Negro performers on it. Do you see any kind of trend toward stations which play only to Negroes?
DG: I’m for people pooling their money and buying something. I’m all for that because if they’re not getting a fair shake – they are not getting a fair shake with the white ownerships – I think it’s no more than right that they should have it themselves.
Q: Mr. Gillespie, do you fell that if there is a southern filibuster on civil rights, that the Negroes are justified and should create further demonstrations?
DG: They are definitely going to. It’s a definite fact that if there is a filibuster, there are going to be 200,000 or 300,000 marchers on Washington. And they will be sitting on the Senate floor and in the Senate caucus room.
Ralph Gleason’s wife, Jean, felt we needed somebody as an alternative to Goldwater, so we organized a big campaign out there in California which spread across the country. We had bumper stickers and balloons. My name almost got on the ballot in California, and a lotta write-in votes were cast for me, but I can’t recall how many. I just liked the idea of running for President.
On June 29, 1963, Jeannie Gleason, my chief advisor, received a telegram from Dick Gregory pledging his support: “Thanks so much for the Dizzy Gillespie campaign button. I am sure you know that Diz has my vote but I would like to make one suggestion…How about Miles Davis for Secretary of State? With best wishes. Dick Gregory.”
In San Francisco for my birthday, on October 21, we held a ‘Dizzy for President’ birthday ball at Basin Street West and invited all my California supporters to come out and bring some money. As Jon Hendricks, the campaign lyricist, put it on the invitations, RSVP (Rip Some Vonces on me, Please).
Ralph Gleason The campaign publicist was Ralph Gleason, the jazz columnist, who turned out a whole spate of articles about my better attributes such as experience in foreign affairs; and noted that people wearing buttons supporting my election were popping up all over the place at CORE rallies in Ohio, and in such cities as Paris, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. At least one of my supporters eventually wore a campaign button to the March on Washington, which was really what motivated me to do this, and was photographed walking in the parade alongside James Baldwin. I took to wearing African garb, including my robes, fez, and shoes, around that time to emphasize that my candidacy meant a more progressive outlook toward Africa and the ‘third world,’ but this backfired because many people were confused about where I actually came from. They’d been just as confused when American blacks wearing African clothes would walk into still-segregated public accommodations and get served, sometimes with a smile, because the African countries were free and independent of colonial rule. Because it was wrong and presented a poor image of the U.S. overseas, I emphasized the need to eliminate racism in music, and all other fields, at my performances and lectures at various colleges.
At Raymond College, University of the Pacific, and Berkeley, the students loved it. We played a combination benefit for CORE and campaign rally outdoors in a park, in East Menlo Park, California, and I remember Moody played a duel with a freight train passing by, and won – his solo sounded so strong coming from the speakers. Jon Hendricks unveiled the lyrics of a campaign song, which he’d written, sung to the tune of “Salt Peanuts,” and we performed it together.
Vote Diz, Vote Diz, Vote Diz
Vote for Diz, Vote for Diz
He’ll show you where it is
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
You want a good President who’s willing to run
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
You wanna make Government a barrel of fun
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
Your politics oughta be a groovier thing
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
So get a good President who’s willing to swing
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
Show the Republic where it is
Give them a Democratic Diz, really he is
Your political leaders spout a lot of hot air
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
But Dizzy blows trumpet so you really don’t care
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
You oughta spend your money in a groovier way
Get that badge of the People’s only candidate
Dizzy for President!
(Lyrics by Jon Hendricks)
I thought that was cute. That was a real gas. The campaign had its humorous side. I’d announce my choices for appointments to minor posts, such as the Honorable Ross Barnett, governor of Alabama, as Chief of the USIA in the Congo, and make suggestions to the Congress and the administration. We wanted the Senate Internal Security Committee to investigate “everything under white sheets” for un-American activities, and NASA we asked to put up at least one black astronaut. I threw out trial balloons by speculating openly about changing the color of the White House and the possibility of naming Bo Diddley as Secretary of State. My fans organized the John Birks Society and sold sweatshirts with my portrait silk-screened in front to wear as a uniform, a follow-up to the initiative of sweatshirt wearers who loved Bach and Beethoven. When asked by critics, why I, a jazz man, was running for President, I’d answer, “Because we need one.”
We had a complete program and began developing a platform early on.
We also began considering solutions to real problems like finding a black astronaut because no qualified applicants were found, I intended to go to the moon myself. By early 1964, the campaign was definitely off the ground, and Jeannie Gleason had been contacted by people in twenty-five states about it. The drive began to place my name on the official ballot in California as a candidate. Members of the John Birks Society started circulating the petition: “We, the undersigned, hereby petition the Secretary of State of the State of California to place the name of John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie as an independent candidate for the Presidency of the United States…” We decided to skip all the primaries and that I would run as a write-in candidate all the way. People all over the country and abroad loved my campaign slogan: I’m running for President “Because we need one…”
I was interviewed by the National Observer, radio and television announcers in Washington, and had lunch with I.F. Stone. There were pressures on me to withdraw from the race after the press began to show some interest, and they found out that I was a serious candidate. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, an arch conservative tried to split and draw away my support from the jazz community by naming Turk Murphy as his favorite musician. I replied, “All I can say is don’t blame Turk for that. I’m glad he didn’t pick me.”
Reporters were curious about whether I planned to withdraw early and switch my support to President Lyndon Johnson. I had thought about that but was determined not to announce any decision until after the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and a review of the Democrats’ platform plank on civil rights. “That sounds like Governor Wallace of Alabama,” Ralph Gleason said.
“Governor Wallace is a horse of a different color,” I replied, adding that I was not, “a dark horse candidate.” There were plans to wage a strong floor fight for my proposals on eliminating the income tax, legalizing numbers, and changing the color and/or name of the White House. I’d have my representatives at the Convention lie on the floor while blowing trumpets if necessary. In the event we did not gain our aims in this struggle, I coined a parable to describe my last-ditch position.
I never thought the time would come when
I’d vote for Lyndon B.
But I’d rather burn in hell, than vote for
Everyone agreed we had to look out for Dr. Strangelove.
By midway in the campaign, my standard speech was in perfect order and was reported verbatim in the press. IN this speech I disclosed my major plans for new programs and major appointments to government posts.
“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.
“Income tax must be abolished, and we plan to legalize ‘numbers’ – you know, the same way they brought jazz into the concert halls and made it respectable. We refuse to be influenced by the warnings of one NAACP official who claims that making this particular aspect of big business legal would upset the nation’s economy disastrously.
“One of the ways we can cut down government expenditures is to disband the FBI and have the Senate Internal Security Committee investigate everything under white sheets for un-American activities. Understand, we won’t take no ‘sheet’ off anybody!
“All U.S. Attorneys and judges in the South will be our people so we can get some redress. ‘One Man-One Vote – that’s our motto. We might even disenfranchise women and let them run the country. They’ll do it anyhow.
“The Army and Navy will be combined so no promoter can take too bit a cut off the top of the ‘double-gig’ setup they have now.
“The National Labor Relations Board will rule that people applying for jobs have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won’t know what they are until after they’ve been hired. The sheets, of course, will all be colored!
“We’re going to recall every U.S. ambassador except Chester Bowles and give the assignments to jazz musicians because they really, “know where it is.”
Charles Mingus, Dizzy’s proposed Minister of Peace “The title ‘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. Mrs. Jeannie Gleason, whose husband Ralph writes a lot, will be Ministress of the Treasury. Max Roach argued for the position of Minister of War. He said he wanted to declare it. But since we’re not going to have any, I gave him some books by C. Wright Mills and convinced him to be Minister of Defense. I have Charles Mingus lined up for Minister of Peace because he’ll take a piece of your head faster than anybody I know.
“Ray Charles will be in charge of the Library of Congress, and we have found a place for Ross Barnett — U.S. Information Officer in the Congo. We will also recommend a special act of Congress to revoke the citizenship of Governor George Wallace and deport him to Vietnam.
“Since integration will be so complete under my administration, the Muslims will be out of business, and even Malcolm S’x group won’t have anything to do. Ro rather than let all that talent go to waste, Malcolm will be appointed U.S. Attorney General, immediately. He’s one cat we want on our side.
“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. Mary Lou Williams has already agreed to be Ambassadress to the Vatican. 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.
“There will be places in the cabinet for Peggy Lee (Ministress of Labor), Ella Fitzgerald (HEW), Carmen McRae, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, and Count Basie. They are collaborating now on the jazz curriculum to be taught to kids in every school in the country.
“The distinguished post of National Poet Laureate, a paid position, will go to Jon Hendricks who has been donating his services to our movement as a campaign lyricist.
“As Vice-President, I would like Ramona Crowell, a leader of the John Birks Society and a registered Sioux Indian.”
President Johnson discovered this campaign had a very serious side when musicians picketed a fund-raising discotheque for LBJ, protesting the exclusive use of recorded music at these affairs. “Record Don’t Vote,” they said. One of my supporters, Bill Crow, a bassist with Gerry Mulligan, was among them and told the press that he knew it was important to stop Goldwater and would probably vote for Johnson, but he said, “In my heart, I know Diz is right.”
We hammered on the issues right down to the wire, and in an interview for Downbeat, I stated what I believed to be the key issues: civil rights, to be gained if necessary through mass boycotts of certain products; a national lottery to remove or reduce the income tax; equality of opportunity in employment without regard to race; the diplomatic recognition of China; and an end to the war in Vietnam. In addition we pushed for a tax on jukebox operators, the proceeds to be distributed among musicians and composers, aimed at promoting the hiring of live musicians. There was a bill in Congress about it then, and I believe it’s still there. I recommended more federal subsidies for the arts and pushed the creation of civil service nightclubs where musicians who’d actually be government workers could play regularly. It would lead to a great rejuvenation of jazz.
Jean Gleason (campaign manager):
“Well, it actually came about originally because some promotion guy had some buttons made up that said ‘Dizzy Gillespie for President.’ Now, who that was, I don’t know; it was just for promotion purposes, right. But then we just sort of took it from there because it sounded like a great idea to us. We took off from that, but it wasn’t our original idea to make up those buttons. We made many, many more of them after that; but the original buttons were made by someone who was doing promotions for him. That was the origin of it.
“My husband, who was writing a column then, wrote a column about it. He thought it was a great idea, and from then on, we just did whatever we could think of. We had more buttons made up; we had bumper stickers and sent out some publicity releases too. Then we started getting a lot of feedback from Dizzy’s fans on it.
“Well, I certainly think he was of presidential caliber, but on the other hand, it was quite obvious that Dizzy was not going to give up his career in music. Not for being a politician, any more than he is now, anyway. He’s always espousing what he believes in as I think he should, you know. I think it’s great, but he obviously is in it only to a certain degree. There was this element of humor as there was in anything with Dizzy, but underlying it was this serious belief that he’d make a great candidate – but not as any serious belief that he was actually gonna run for President.
“I think that he is highly intelligent, a much more highly intelligent man than anybody that’s been in the White House; also very cognizant of world problems, not just the problems of this country, but throughout the world. And he’s very, very sincere. Not afraid to speak his mind at all. I don’t think he ever got on the ballot, but he certainly did have write-in votes, mine among them.”
I liked the idea of running for President, and it would’ve been nice to be elected. I’d have fought for a disarmament program and the establishment of a world government, somewhere. We’ve got the laws to accomplish what I want, I’d just enforce the existing laws. I would see that everyone had enough to eat and some clothes and a decent place to stay. Everybody, every citizen, is entitled to that. Education would be beautiful, free, subsidized by the government. All of it. Anytime you wanted to learn something, I’d pay you to do it. Hospitalization would also be free. The only bona-fide politician who paid any serious attention to my political ideas, which have since been in part realized, was a woman. I gave a “Dizzy Gillespie For President” button to the representative from Texas, Barbara Jordan. She wore it on the floor of the House. It’s a shame she wasn’t nominated for a major post in the Carter administration, like Vice-President or Attorney General. That would’ve been great, wouldn’t it?
In the 1972 elections I started to run for the presidency a second time. I was invited to the White House for dinner and talked with President Nixon, and that’s when I decided to do it. I was about to become a perennial candidate but changed my mind and withdrew from the race after consulting with my spiritual advisors. The first time, I had a real reason for running because the proceeds from the sale of buttons went to CORE, SCLC, and 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. The second time, my ideas about politics as a whole had changed completely, and I issued the following disclaimer:
“Upon reflection, I have decided to withdraw my bid for the presidency of the United States. My real intention has not been to promote myself politically or to criticize by my candidacy the actions of anyone who holds or aspires to this high position in our government.
“Rather, I have been deeply concerned with drawing attention to the dire necessity of bringing together the peoples of the world in unity so that all wars may cease.
“I can only hope that this urgent necessity will be met soon through the efforts of all who are in positions of influence, with the support of others, like myself, working through the avenues open to their respective callings.”
I issued the disclaimer because I found out it was against the principles of the Baha’I faith to run for political office. We believe that the political systems in the world that we know are finished and that there will be a new day of political activity counter to what’s happening now. We think that to aspire to any political office in this age is beneath our station. Because Baha’u’llah says there will be the establishment of a true world government with representatives of all the world’s people. The shibboleth of nationalism has got to fall, and politics won’t work like it does today. That’s why I don’t have any more presidential aspirations. Faith cut my aspirations in that direction for being king of anywhere or prime minister. It was below my station to aspire to the presidency of the United States. My aspirations go higher than that. Running for President of a world government would be more in keeping with my interests.
Excerpted from To Be, or not…To Bop, by Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser
Dizzy Gillespie plays “Salt Peanuts” at the White House, 1978