Diz by Amiri Baraka

BOMB 57 Fall 1996
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996

I was into the Orioles, Ruth Brown, Larry Darnell, Louie Jordan, The Ravens, Ya know, the late ’40s, just going into high school. When my 1st cousin, George, let me have his older brother Sonny’s BeBop collection!

I got those old Guilds, Manors, Savoys and a whole world unfolded before me, beginning with the names: Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Yardbird Parker. The names, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Klook, Kenny Clarke. The names, the language, another world had opened.

Oop Bop sha Bam (a koo koo mop!) the language, another world. The Land of Ooo Blah Dee. Me and Joe Carroll went there and hung until they sicked Dooie Blah and Dooie Blee on us. Swing Low Sweet Cadillac. (Didn’t one of them dudes in the horn section answer after … wadie wadie wadie wadie … yo wambo … YO MAM-OO.)

And from the beginning of my entrance into that world, it was Diz who was the central figure, the beckoner, sitting there looking out at me from Esquire, the beret and hornrimmed bebop glasses. “To Be Or Not To Bop,” the caption said, and called him “Diz, The High Priest of BeBop.” And that was it for me, then. All the wild stuff they sd about Diz, trying to make you think this or that, escaped me. What I saw was my leader. The twinkle behind the rims, I thought I understood what he was signifying. That’s what Diz taught, fundamentally, how to nut out on the square world. That word, Hip! That was with it too, from the beginning. They, and I got in it too, were Hip, Hip cats. Cats. I rather be a cat than a dog, right now!

The Square versus The Hip, and I never forgot that. Even now in this square and ugly world, to be hip in a square world, would make some square call you dizzy.

The Ethiopians called the Pyramid “the angle of success.” They called the Square “the angle of failure.” The cultural continuum even across the middle passage. Like

Oop shoobee doobee

            Oop Oop

Oop shoobee doobee

            Oop Oop!                You Dig?

“A lovers’ conversation.” In Kush or Nights in Tunisia or approaching Tin Tin Deo. We could also dig the funk of burning Manteca! Dug the circle as

            the whirl

            O world

            the pyramid as

            the rising focus

            of endless energy. I

            and I.

                           So the square, goes

            no where. Like the box

            we in. it might rock but

            it sure can’t roll (censored

                            censored censored

                            censored censored

                            censored censored)

            no matter how high it go

            it always resemble its lowest self

And I went to work then, trying to find out what was really happening. That language too. What’s Happening? I had gotten Max Roach & His BeBop Boys. Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. Stan Getz. Opus De Bop. Thriving on a Riff. I copped Bird’s Repetition, w/ Strings. Wow.

The titles of the songs drew me in further. They were so … yeh, weird. Then I dug the real high priest, in shades and another tarn, looking past all of us, into the hipnopocity of everything. Monk. Diz was the leader. The speaker. The political cadre, pushing the music by his playing, by his Dizness. He was His Royal Dizziness. Monk, on the other hand, was inside the deepness, the heaviness of what it was. He made no statements, no daunting alarums (yeh), he was the High Priest, but Diz was royalty.

And Diz titles always carried you somewhere up the street and around the corner where the hip shit was. Tin Tin Deo. The Champ were two of my 1st self reliant purchases. Now I was in high school and cd get an after school gig.

A Night in Tunisia, Kush, Con Alma, and with the Ooo Bop Sha Bams and then Woody Herman’s Lemon Drop, and Babs’ 3 Bips and a Bop, the language of BeBop became easily my own, and still, to this day, remains.

Diz BeBop. The beret, Bop glasses, and a goatee, don’t forget that. For a couple of decades journalists around the world would sum up the music, or make cracks about it, using that stereotype of early Diz. Bopper jokes became the norm, for alluding to the crazy, the wild, the frantic. And that’s what they called us, because that what we said.

The language registered our psychological expressions of our social life (and the US’s). We were “wild,” “crazy,” “frantic,” as opposed to trained, nor/mal, static, like regular bourgeois culture.

It was an emotional expression of the common psychological development of urban Afro-America. But that language was a shower of new images. Diz and Bird and Monk and Max and Klook and Bud. Un Poco Loco was what Bud said and everybody thought that’s what Bop was: craziness.

But like the Zen masters knew, inside Diz’s laughter was an absolute rationality, as to How corny this bullshit white face slavery exploiting society was. Is. We needed Diz’s assurance that it all could be laughed at. And if you wadn’t doing anything else, you least needed to do that. Dig?

Dig? The language. Like Thelonius, you dig? It scrambled me, shot some disparate colors into my mind, trying to make me understand some stuff I needed to, to grow. Things, feeling, revelations, my own acts. That I was entering a higher intellectual culture, in which art was validated as personal experience.

“To Be Or Not To Bop.” But Diz was already Bopping. He & Bird, Bud, Monk, Klook, then Max, Miles had created it, as a new speech, a new song. Like a dialectical expression of the new feeling the times demanded, in contrast to the careful dead arrangements the corporations had co-opted swing into.

Where the big classic swinging jazz orchestras had created a fresh expanded contemporary form for Afro-American music. But soon the big band became a commercial and artistic jail, as it was subsumed by the commercial, largely white, “swing” (as a noun) bands. Like ’60s jazz was co-opted by fusion.

Diz and the others had worked the big classic bands. Teddy Hill, Lionel Hampton, Errol Hines, Cab Calloway &c. After working those gigs, Diz, Bird, and the others would wind up uptown in Harlem, after hours, in Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House, the Black laboratories of sound, the smoke and whiskey academies of soul, where they gave a new generation their self consciousness.

The bullet sharp experimentation in wailing, the sound’s language. To get the blues back into the music, to get the polyrhythms of Africa back, to get improvisation back, as primary, these were the essence of their experiments. To get away from the deadly charts of commercial swing. The tin pan alley plantations.

This was one of the catalysts for Bird and Diz and the young boppers beginning to improvise off the harmonic structure, the chords, of cliched standards, rather than play those tired melodies.

And those terrible groups that came out of that. Diz, Bird, Klook, Blakey, Max, Miles, Bud, Monk. It was blazing and, yes, weird. That was an acknowledged constant. Frantic. Yeh, we called it that. We was trying to get frantic, trying to get away from Kay Kayser and Sammy Kay. The music turned us on. And it was already Gone, if you dug it!

Our language told where we was coming from and where we was trying to go. Frantic, Crazy, Wild, Out, Gone! We was hip not square. We walked that way, the bop walk, used to dance the bop, these squares talking about you couldn’t dance to it. Shit, we danced to all of Diz’s shit. We were Boppers. My father even asked me Why I wanted To Be A Bopper. You mean, why did I want to be conscious??

But Diz always held the paramount stature in the music. Bird was the great innovator and genius. But Diz was the leader of the whole shit. Of everybody. The speech and the song. The music and the lifestyle.

Plus, from the beginning, Diz, himself, was a musical innovator of great impact. He was a theoretician, a teacher, a performer, a composer, an incredible instrumentalist. Dig, of the two US world ambassadors, they choose Louis and Diz, both the same kind of bloods. Both great musicians and great communicators. No matter how jive and bloody the US would be, here come Louie and Diz, and like Louis said, “I’m the real ambassador!!” Nobody could put them down. They were loved around the world.

Dizzy’s groups have always been signal. His big bands among the most innovative in the music. Like Diz said when he signed my copy of To Be Or Not To Bop, “For My Idol …” Hahaha. That’s the kind of ambassador Diz was. He was one of my largest culture heroes. And so he rewards me with assuming my regard for him. Incredible.

But the lames always purposely misread Diz, being Lames. They confused his domination over squareness as lack of seriousness. To be serious about squares one needs a gun. But in his autobiography, Diz says his hero was Paul Robeson. In the ’40s there was a whole group of Black youth, who called themselves the Paul Robeson movement. Diz was undoubtedly part of that.

In the ’40s, WW2 made it seem, again, like there might be equality in the offing. There was a social consciousness movement that swept through the Black arts as it had done in the ’20s and again in the ’60s.

It was the worldwide resistance to fascism that had undergirded it. So that the music, Bop, was also a conscious attempt to tear away from the grim corporate establishment that locked the music up, just as it did the people.

I have always thought Bop language, “Ooo shoobie doobie oop ooo OO shoobie doobie oo oop,” for instance, was an attempt to respeak African language. Like the unknown tongue, the African language still glued in our consciousness with our culture. The scatting (which Louis raised earlier!) and the Bop talk that Diz brought, both were attempts to put the instrumental language back into vocal language, and that unknown language of the Black unconsciousness was and is “African” or Afro-American.

Diz was always into Africa. As the titles of his compositions attest to. (Tunisia, Kush, &c.) Diz also hooked up the Pan-American funk to its African origins. Diz was the one who set out the larger expression of what was to be called Afro-Cuban music.

It’s internationalist focus is unmistakable. Diz hooked up with Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo, Candido, Machito, Mongo Santamaría, and other great Latin American musicians to reconstruct a new Afro-Latin sound. Called Afro-Cuban music. What Jelly Roll alluded to as “The Latin tinge” Diz brought all the way into full sight. Bringing both the Latino and English Caribbean into focus in Afro-American music. Manteca is a classic, as is the still not well known Cubana Be and Cubana Bop.

Years later, Diz came back from Brazil with what the commercial people tagged “Bossa Nova,” again linking the Brazilian Samba with Afro-American jazz.

Now it’s too weird to think that even Diz is gone. Almost all the others of that generation have booked. Only the great Max Roach of the original funkateers remains. And a few of the close communers, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, who were younger and among the first disciples. But where there was a deep deep sadness for all the departed, Bird, Bud, Klook, Monk, Miles, like part of myself had left, certainly my youth, and the bright unshakeable hopes of my generation. With Diz’s departure, there is not only a sadness, still not completely raised. (I mean, I don’t know whether I even believe it yet. Diz might be jivin’, he might just pop up somewhere. I heard Jon Faddis play the other day at St. John the Divine and I thought maybe Diz was somewhere cracking up.) But with Diz gone, it’s like you don’t even feel safe around here no more. Really, like you don’t even feel safe!


Born Leroy (later changed to LeRoi) Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934, Amiri Baraka was a seminal figure in the Beat movement, editing the avant-garde literary journals Yguen and Floating Bear, and publishing his first collection of poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His play Dutchman was produced in 1964 and won an Obie. Since 1965, in wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka has committed his life and work to the Black Arts Repertory Theater School and other African American cultural and political activities. Eulogies is forthcoming this fall from Marsilio Publishers.

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“I didn’t want to paint figuratively. I didn’t want something that was overtly referencing the social issues around me, but I wanted to find a way to describe them. How do you internalize this? How do you make a form that forces a painting to be an experience that is not necessarily easy to see, handle, or look at?”

Originally published in

BOMB 57, Fall 1996

Featuring interviews with Jasper Johns, Tobias Wolff, Laurie Simmons, Sapphire, Scott Elliott, Brenda Blethyn, Craig Lucas, Suzannah Lessard & Honor Moore, Peter Dreher, and Richard Einhorn.

Read the issue
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996