The phone rang late one night in the winter of 1992. I grabbed the receiver, fearing the worst. I knew the call must have something to do with my “godfather,” John Birks Gillepsie, who was dying of pancreatic cancer.
It was reassuring to hear Dizzy’s voice, which rumbled like a storm front.
“Whatcha up to?”
“Aaach. Trying to work on my dissertation. But I’m doing more staring than writing. It all seems like so much bullshit.”
“It’s hard to compose … ,” he said, leaving the thought hanging, as he often did, presuming I’d figure out the best way to finish it.
“What’s up, Diz?” I asked.
“C’mon over, man.”
“Yeah? It’s two o’clock in the morning. The hospital staff may get pissed off.”
“Nah, it’s only me and the nurse. C’mon over. I want you to hear something.”
Dizzy, among his many larger-than-life traits, was utterly compelling.
“Okay, man. What the hell, give me a half hour.”
This Time Was Different
Within minutes, I was in my car. I always felt excited as I crossed the George Washington Bridge to visit Dizzy because I knew that he’d say something—or suggest we do something—that I could not have imagined. I always had the feeling that something cool was going to happen—even the simplest thing, like shooting a game of pool, which Dizzy turned into an exquisite ritual. This time was different. I was apprehensive. He wasn’t at home; he was in a hospital room. Part of Dizzy’s pancreas had been removed and his liver was not metabolizing his pain medication properly. Sometimes his mind was cloudy.
I arrived at Englewood Hospital and rode up the elevator. My heart started beating fast. Being there brought me back to the day he’d had his surgery a few weeks before, and how scared I was waiting for the surgeon to deliver the prognosis. As I walked into his room, Dizzy was sitting up in bed, listening to music through a headset perched on his broad face. His famous cheeks sagged from infirmity. He looked at me and smiled.
“Oh, yeahhhhhhh …,” he said.
It was a familiar, catchall phrase of Dizzy’s. I couldn’t tell if he remembered that he’d summoned me.
“Hey, man,” I said. “What are you listening to?”
“A-Night-In-Tune-Ease-Ya,” he said, his eyes twinkling like they did when he was on stage.
Night in Tunisia was Dizzy’s signature song. I loved the way he’d introduce it in concerts toward the end of his career.
“We are going to play a tune that has been closely associated with me for more than forty years,” he’d say. “As a matter of fact, I wrote it.”
The audience would laugh politely.
“This par-tic-u-lar tune has withstood the vi-ciss-i-tudes of the con-tin-gent world,” he'd continue, standing back from the microphone with the smirk of a boy who has just aced the Spelling Bee, “and has MOSEYED” — he’d cock his head and suspend his thumbs upward as if he were snapping invisible suspenders —”into the realm of the meta-phys-i-cal.”
The hoots and hollers would steamroll into applause as Dizzy preened in the spotlight. Then came the kicker.
“Damn good for a South Carolina high school dropout, wasn’t it,” he’d say.
The Notes He Didn't Play
I looked at Dizzy with wide eyes.
“Man, you wrote that song. You’ve played that song probably hundreds of thousands of times,” I joshed, “and that’s what you’re listening to? A Night in Tunisia?”
“Well,” he replied, “I’m listening to the notes I didn’t play.”
“Diz, c’mon man, cheer up,” I blurted, feeling broken hearted. I had my therapist’s hat on. Dizzy was always the one making everybody else feel good, but here was this great man at the end stage of his life caught up in Erik Erikson’s concept of ego integrity versus despair. He seemed unable to appreciate one of his great accomplishments as the triumphant work of art that it was.
“You wrote a wonderful song,” I continued in a soothing voice. “You built a wonderful life. Why are you so remorseful?”
“Oh, mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn,” he replied, shaking his head slowly. It was a groan that seemed to come from the pit of his being. I’d heard it throughout the nearly forty years that Dizzy had been a major presence my life. “Didn’t I teach you anything?”
I stared back into his eyes, ready to absorb.
“No, man. I’m not listening to the notes I didn’t play because I’m bummed out,” he said, enunciating each word precisely. “I’m listening to the notes I didn’t play because they make the notes I chose to play that much sweeter.”
Dizzy reinforced a lesson that morning that he’d taught me many times before. As we improvise on the score that is our lives with every breath we take, the choices we don’t make are just as important as the ones we do. Dizzy’s overriding principle was that we should make our decisions based on one standard: What’s right? What’s decent? How would I like to be treated under similar circumstances?
It’s not that Dizzy didn’t suffer from angst like the rest of us. He certainly did. But when you hit the wrong note, as you certainly will from time to time, you’ve got to learn to leave it behind you.