J. C. Adamson
I met Dizzy when I had the chance to photograph him in the mid-1970s. I was introduced to him as he autographed records in the downtown Denver department store from which I managed a group of photographic portrait studios. During the times he was busy signing, I wandered around the record department, waiting impatiently for my few minutes of opportunity to work with him. When he wasn't busy, we chatted
I was a pretty big fan, but I truly wasn't very knowledgeable about Jazz in those days. I had some sense of Dizzy's role in Jazz history, but I didn't know enough to talk intelligently with him about his experiences. During one of the times that he was busy, I picked out an album for him to autograph. Dizzy seemed impressed that I chose a re-issue album, from the early years—he said he liked those things best, himself.
By the time his signing obligation had been completed, he was running late for a television interview, and I was told I could have five minutes to photograph him. We went to my studio. I seated him in a basic pose, lit his full face, and managed to squeeze off only eight shutter-snaps before he had to move on. It was awkward. I felt rushed and uncomfortable, and I knew I wasn't creating the images I really wanted.
I escorted him to the first floor, toward his waiting limousine. On the way, we passed the cosmetic counter, and Dizzy spied an attractive, dark-skinned sales woman, probably in her forties.
He stopped short, and turned to face her. "Honey, you is a little bit of all right," he effused, stretching each simple word into multiple syllables. He took her hand, and lit her face with his lively expression. She certainly knew who was spending his attentions so lavishly on her.
I knew as I watched and listened that I'd failed to capture Dizzy in the portraits I'd just completed. In the camera room, and in our earlier conversations, I hadn't found the necessary spark of truth. I had only captured a likeness of him.
Dizzy finished his momentary flirtation, and moved to the door, having brightened his and the saleswoman's lives—mine too, vicariously. As he reached the limo, I realized I didn't have his address, and I needed it to send him copies of the photos, and a release allowing us to use them. I asked for the address, and he shouted a five-digit number. I waited for the rest, and he said, that will do, just "Dizzy Gillespie," and the zip code.
That night, I attended the concert, and saw Dizzy perform live for the first time. His playing style is sometimes called, "loose-cheeks," and music teachers of course counsel against it. The word, "loose" hardly describes the effect. I'd seen pictures, but I'd never actually seen the mammoth cheeks. He seemed to have to blow them up in advance for each phrase. His breath filled not just his cheeks, but his entire lower face, even lifting the skin off the back of his neck.
In performance, Dizzy was electric. His playing was flawless, but there was much more than that. Music brought him to life, in much the same manner as had his brief encounter with the lovely lady. I knew again that I hadn't revealed his spirit in my portraits.
Later, when the film had been processed and proofed, I found that I did have one image that adequately captured a quieter side of Dizzy. I sent copies, addressed as he had instructed me, to the zip code in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. They reached him just fine, and I received the signed release forms by return mail, along with a thank-you note, telling me that his wife really liked the pictures. Perhaps I had, after all, captured something of the quieter truth that she knew in him.
I was impressed that he'd been gracious enough to take the time to write to me, and to allow us to use his photos. He was certainly under no obligation to me or to the company.
My career gave me other opportunities to meet Dizzy, and to see him perform. I certainly didn't know him well, but I genuinely enjoyed him. In personal contacts he was always gracious, even when he was sometimes confronted with thoughtless or rude behavior.
Once, at a radio station interview, he was being accompanied by a white man with whom he stayed when in town. The station's publicity director was in the process of photographing Dizzy, and part of his entourage, with some of the station's personalities. For one particular photo, all of the subjects were African-American, and were standing in a straight line. Dizzy's white friend quipped, "All right, which one of you niggers done it?" Apparently he'd heard black people use the epithet with each other, and thought he'd earned the right to use it because of his closeness with Dizzy. His intended joke carried no humor. The air turned to ice. One of the black station executives started to move toward the jokester. Dizzy turned and began to cheerfully talk of something else as he partially blocked the path between the two antagonists. He had diffused the tension.
When I think of Dizzy, "gracious" is the first word I find to describe the person I knew. My next thought is of the vivacity and fire I saw in him—on stage, and that day at the cosmetics counter. Today, I hear all those characteristics in his music. That, of course, is where his spirit truly resided all along.
Dizzy died the same day as Rudolf Nureyev. Tears hung just behind my eyes, and my throat tightened. But I smiled as memories flooded into my consciousness. I was blessed to have known him.
He's still the only person I ever knew who could be addressed only by his zip-code.
© J. C. Adamson, 2001
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