Media pundits a-twitter about deadpan satirist Stephen Colbert’s leap into the 2008 primaries need only look to the jazz world for a precedent: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s historic 1964 challenge to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. And while the jury is still out on whether or not Colbert’s candidacy is simply a publicity stunt to help promote sales of his new book, or a semi-subversive attempt to shake up the complacency of the electoral process (most likely both), Gillespie’s campaign harbored a genuine desire, beneath its surface antics, to influence the issues at stake in 1964.
The Gillespie presidential run had first materialized as a gag, when Gillespie’s booking agency manufactured “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons. As the civil-rights campaign heated up in the summer of 1963, however, Gillespie decided to throw his hat into the ring, aided and abetted by jazz writer Ralph Gleason and his wife Jean. The trumpeter said that he would rename the White House “the Blues House” and proposed a presidential cabinet with Duke Ellington as minister of state, Max Roach as minister of defense, Charles Mingus as minister of peace (“because he’ll take a piece of your head faster than anyone I know”), Peggy Lee as minister of labor, and Miles Davis as the director of the CIA. He also suggested having racist Mississippi governor Ross Barnett serve as U.S. Information Agency director in the Congo and earmarked Alabama governor George Wallace for deportation to Vietnam. Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was to be appointed as Attorney General, “because he’s one cat we definitely want to have on our side.”
Other items on his agenda including legalizing the numbers racket, providing free education and health-care, and sending a black astronaut to the moon (if none could be found, Gillespie volunteered to go himself).
Gillespie was in swinging campaign mode at his 1963 Monterey concert, featuring a rewrite of “Salt Peanuts” by Jon Hendricks with lyrics that included the lines, “Your politics oughta be a groovier thing/so get a good president who’s willing to swing/Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!” (The concert can be heard on the CD Dizzy for President.) By the beginning of 1964 the campaign had taken on momentum, with chapters of the “John Birks Society” active in 25 states. Gillespie decided to skip the primaries as run as a write-in candidate; his supporters tried, but failed, to actually get him on the ballot in California. When GOP nominee Goldwater tried to get in on the game by naming Turk Murphy as his favorite jazz musician, Gillespie replied, “All I can say is I don’t blame Turk for that. I’m glad he didn’t pick me.”
There was a serious side to Gillespie’s presidential effort–proceeds from the sales of his presidential buttons went to civil-rights organizations such as CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Gillespie also hoped to push the Democratic Party, which included many southern segregationists, to the left on civil-rights issues. Eventually the campaign sputtered out, though Gillespie continued giving interviews to the press about it throughout the election season. In an interview with Downbeat he advocated anti-discrimination laws, diplomatic recognition of China, and a national lottery to replace the income tax. “I liked the idea of running for president,” Gillespie later wrote, “and it would’ve been fun to be elected. I’d have fought for a disarmament program and the establishment of a world government.”
Gillespie did eventually make it to the White House, though not as commander-in-chief. He visited and performed on several occasions, most famously inducing Jimmy Carter to join him for an impromptu version of “Salt Peanuts” in 1978.