DizzyThe Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie
Bathed in Music
John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie almost vomited from exhaustion as he picked cotton for the first time outside his hometown of Cheraw, South Carolina, in the summer of 1928. He was ten years old, and he hated it.
Those close to him called him John Birks, John, or sometimes Birks. To the world at large, he was Dizzy, a nickname he acquired, as I will describe, when he was eighteen. To keep things simple, I will call him Dizzy throughout this book.
Cheraw is surrounded by a fertile, nearly flat plain 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and just south of the North Carolina border. Cotton was planted on more than 75 percent of the land in 1928, and the landscape was dominated by its large white fields, which were separated at intervals by stands of commercial pine. Working those fields was a rite of passage for Dizzy and other southern blacks in an era when cotton was king.
Blacks represented roughly 1,300 of Cheraw's 3,700 citizens, and picking cotton was almost the only private employment available to them. A few labored in sawmills or brick factories, fewer still were artisans or owned food stores and other small businesses, and some of the women found employment as domestics in the homes of wealthy whites.
The only form of public employment for blacks was teaching, because the white power structure monopolized jobs with the police and fire departments, the road-maintenance gangs, and the court system. Ten blacks taught at the town's segregated Robert Smalls School. Cheraw spent roughly forty dollars per year educating each white student and less than ten dollars on each black. If you were strong and worked for ten hours, you could pick150 pounds of cotton, and during the 1920s your labor would netyou seventy-five cents.
Dizzy was a short, skinny kid when he joined his large and robustolder brother Wesley in the fields that late summer day in1928. Following the lead of the other field hands, Dizzy got downon his hands and knees to pull the white blossoms from their podsand in a continuous motion toss them into a sack that was strappedacross his chest and hung down his back. He soon felt nauseouscrawling in the ninety-five-degree heat, inhaling and coughing updust laden with bits of fertilizer and insecticide. He gulped water,poured some over his head to cool off, and lay down to rest.
After he went back to work, he came close to crying as he cuthis hands several times on the sharp, rigid fronds that encased theblossoms. The nausea returned. He lay down again. Got up andworked. Lay down. By midafternoon, he was exhausted and totallymiserable.
When your sack was full, you emptied it into a larger one andwent back to picking. Dizzy never filled his sack. His harvest was15 pounds, which garnered him a measly eight cents. He was furiousat the world, at himself, and at Wesley who had gathered a respectable125 pounds and had earned more than sixty cents.
After they returned home, Dizzy told his mother, "I wasn't cutout for picking cotton. Someday I'm gonna be a musician, andyou'll be proud of me."
Becoming a musician was not a far-fetched ambition for theboy, because he had been bathed in music from birth. His father,James, who had died from a sudden asthma attack the year beforewhen Dizzy was nine, was a bricklayer who also led a dance band.
Music was an important emotional and creative outlet for theblack families of Cheraw, and many of them, including Dizzy's,laboriously saved their dimes and quarters to buy pianos and otherinstruments. Dizzy's boyhood friend John Motley, who went on tobecome the accompanist of contralto Marian Anderson and a distinguishedchoir director, remembered, "We couldn't vote; wecouldn't use the library. And they drummed into us that meniallabor was our lot. All we had was school, the church, and music.And our black public school didn't really meet our needs becauseit ended in the ninth grade; the whites'sc hools went on throughthe twelfth. So it was the church and music."2 Motley's aunt,Lucile McIver, confirmed his sentiments: "When Dizzy and Johncame along, every parent had a teacher give their child musiclessons. You were in a hopeless condition and that lifted yourspiritsthe songs and the music and whatnot. It was part of yourspiritual life. Everybody could play a piano and everybody had apiano. Every house.You would go out to parties, and you would sitaround and entertain yourselves."
James Gillespie purchased an upright piano so large that hehad half the side of his home torn out to bring the instrument in,and Dizzy loved to sit on the floor and look up at his dad poundingout piano choruses as he ran his band through rehearsals. Thehouse was full of instruments — a drum set, a mandolin, a guitar,a clarinet, and a bass fiddle — because James was fearful that hismusicians might pawn them between gigs. James spent everyspare penny on his instruments, and though he led his band fromthe piano, he taught himself to play all the others.
Dizzy enjoyed fondling the dark burnished string bass and theshiny guitar, and at age three he was already exploring melodieson the piano and playing precise rhythmic patterns on the drums.James was pleased because Dizzy was the only one of his sevenchildren who exhibited any musical talent.
Dizzy's parents were serious Christians, and almost from birth he imbibed music in large quantities at two nearby black churches.The Gillespies worshipped at United Methodist, a large red brickstructure that Dizzy could reach by running through a backyard,and he was an almost obsessive visitor at the small, wooden Sanctified Church eight doors from his home on Huger Street ...Continues...