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“Jazz is too good for Americans!”

Dizzy Gillespie, 1956





Being disgusted with Congress is, of course, nothing new…In an excerpt from Dizzy Gillespie’s 1979 autobiography (written with Al Fraser) to BE, or not . . . to BOP, Dizzy reminds us of the thick-headed politicians of 1957 who questioned the “exorbitant” fees paid to him and his band during their 1956 State Department-sponsored tour of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and South America.

In this excerpt — from a chapter titled “Higher Than Ike” —  Dizzy cynically writes about the “thanks” he received from members of Congress following the tour, as well as the controversy concerning his salary as a musician of his “stature,” particularly since it exceeded that of President Dwight Eisenhower’s.  







     Despite unprecedented success at home and abroad, in 1957 we again became the object of attacks.  First, they denied us a booking at Veterans Auditorium in Los Angeles because some officials there claimed we were rock ‘n roll, so we played somewhere else.  Then the newspapers started churning up silly questions about whether rock ‘n roll had replaced bebop.  I answered them by saying that rock ‘n roll was just one aspect of jazz, and that modern jazz was still right there on the scene.  Rock ‘n roll was a form of music older than modern jazz and had been with us for a long time.  Louis Jordan had been playing it as long as I could remember, long before Elvis Presley.

     The big guns attacked us.  Some congressmen, Senator Ellender, from Louisiana, and Representative Rooney of Brooklyn, New York, began a big hoopla in Washington about how much money we’d made overseas.  They cut the budget of the USIS by 26 per cent because they said the fees we’d been paid were “exorbitant” and a waste of the taxpayers’ money.  They got angry because I’d made $2,150 a week for two months, and President Eisenhower’s salary was calculated at $100,000 a year, a little under $2,000 a week.  When they questioned me about it, I asked them how many notes could the President play at one time.  I knew my horn, and they paid me what was due to an artist of my stature at that particular moment.  Considering my position in the financial hierarchy of America, I got paid pretty well, but it certainly wasn’t any big deal.  After all we’d done to represent American culture abroad to important audiences in Europe and the ‘third world,’ that was the thanks we received from Congress.  The State Department tried to defend the program claiming the U.S. couldn’t afford to send less than the best artist on these tours, and the best required top pay.  No one bothered to compare our salaries with those other American artists commanded.  To send a jazz band abroad was indeed a bargain compared to certain rock ‘n roll stars.  Those tours abroad helped the U.S. immensely, and those guys in Washington started saying I made too much money, more than the President of the United States.  Of course, I didn’t have two quarters to hit together, and they were picking on me.  They knew no jazz musician could make that kind of money all year.

     I finally wound up getting angry about it, and told them, “Jazz is too good for Americans!”  By that I meant Americans don’t seem to appreciate our own native music here, as well as people do in foreign lands – in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.  They really go wild over it; they study it, they take it more seriously.  And that is still true to a large extent.  Would somebody please tell me why?






Excerpted from

to BE, or not . . . to BOP

by Dizzy Gillespie (with Al Fraser)