How a Jazz Legend Handled Discrimination

dizzy gillespie-1-thumb-473x439The recent Indiana controversy over whether businesses have the right to refuse service to gay customers reminded me of one of my favorite jazz stories. This one was told by one jazz legend (Oscar Peterson) about another (Dizzy Gillespie).

“We were traveling down South, in some of the bigoted areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or something like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the famous sign: No Negroes. And the deal was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian cats would say, “What do you want me to get you?” And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d order and come back on the bus and eat with us. But Dizzy gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, “Oh my God, that’s the last we’ll see of him.” And he sits down at the counter — we could see this whole thing through the window. And the waitress goes over to him. And she says to him, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve Negroes in here.” And Dizzy says, “I don’t blame you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll have a steak.”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “How a Jazz Legend Handled Discrimination”

  1. Dizzy understood the art of making serious points through comedy. In his 1964 run for President (platform: implement civil rights; free health care for all; withdraw from Vietnam; recognise mainland China), the serious point was that an African American was claiming the right to be President if elected. But the gags were good ones too. His grass roots organisation was the John Birks Society. He tapped Miles Davis to be head of the CIA, and Malcolm X as AG. As an anti discrimination measure in employment, all interviewees would wear (coloured) sheets over their heads until they were appointed. A very wise, very funny man. Oh, and he could play the trumpet a bit, too.

  2. There's a world of difference between cheap cynicism and informed skepticism. I spent a good part of my childhood living in areas where restaurants had "White Only" signs on the front door, and it wasn't a gentle suggestion. I know of too many people who pushed back against the color barrier and got awfully dead as a result to take this story at face value, especially a story set in the dim past, told by one beloved jazz master about another.

    1. Diz grew up in South Carolina in the 20s and 30s, so maybe he had a sense of what would and woudn't work in that specific situation. Also, FWIW, one of the earliest social science studies testing the validity of survey responses was on a similar topic. I think it's from the 40s. The researchers called motels and asked if the motel would accept Blacks (or maybe it was Asians — IIRC, this was in California). But when the actual people went to those motels that said No, most of the motels rented them a room. (My memory on this is obviously hazy. But the point seems to be that they didn't want to lose any business. So they told the racists what they thought the racists wanted to hear.)

    2. Thanks, TheHersch, for writing this.
      I also grew up in the South (in the 50s & 60s) and share your skepticism.

      I wonder if Keith Humphreys has ever lived in the South….or visited, save for the occasional professional meeting in NOLA.

      1. I grew up in West Virginia with extended family in Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida. Unlike you guys apparently, I saw a lot of courageous behavior by African-Americans who fought against Jim Crow, so I'm standing with Dizzy and Oscar on this one.

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