Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Music is Forever" - Dave Usher and Bert Falbaum

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"In addition to being the very definition of enlivening swinging, Dizzy Gillespie — whom I knew well — was also an invaluable teacher and humanist. All of Dizzy is here in this book, Music Is Forever, by Dave Usher and Berl Falbaum."
— Nat Hentoff, jazz critic for JAZZed Magazine,
The Wall Street Journal, and author of
At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene

"This book is a major contribution to our knowledge about Dizzy Gillespie, particularly his work in the early 1950s when he had a partnership with Dave Usher in the Dee Gee Record label. Many areas of background are fully fleshed out for the first time, and at the center of the story is the strong bond of friendship between an entrepreneurial Jewish kid and an African-American trumpeter eleven years his senior. Even when Dee Gee failed, due primarily to an error in judgment by Usher — he trusted someone he shouldn't have — the friendship continued, and Usher offers us a very personal view into the life of one of America's best loved entertainers and jazz musicians."
— Alyn Shipton, writer, broadcaster, jazz historian and author of Groovin High, The Life of Dizzy Gillespie

"In the jazz community, it is general knowledge that Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Usher were close. Dave's book discloses the depth of their friendship and the extent of their professional partnership. He tells the story with warmth, humor and detail that further illuminate not only the great trumpeter's genius but also his humanity."
— Doug Ramsey, author of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond and Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers

“We — John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie and I — were the embodiment of the odd couple. Throughout the years, I often wondered how we developed not only a professional relationship, but a very close personal bond, one that lasted just short of 50 years.

I was born in the North in Detroit; Dizzy was born in the South in Cheraw, South Carolina. I was the youngest of five children; he was the youngest of nine. I had limited musical talent; Dizzy taught himself to play the trombone and trumpet at the age of 10. I grew up in a home that listened exclusively to classical music; Dizzy was exposed to blues and jazz almost from birth, given that his father was a bandleader in Cheraw. I was Jewish; he a believer in the Baha'i Faith to which he converted when he was about 50. (Dizzy grew up in a Methodist household.) Oh yes, I was white; he was black, or more accurately, colored or Negro as African-Americans were called at the time.”
- Dave Usher

In his Introduction to Music is Forever, Dizzy Gillespie, the Jazz Legend and Me, Bert Falbaum writes of his co-author: “Dave, I discovered, was a mensch, a Jewish word meaning that the individual has a heart and soul, and he/she is a person of honor and integrity. If anyone ever fit all the nuances of that word, it was Dave.”

Not to engage in one upmanship with Bert, but I already knew that Dave Usher was a mensch because when I was preparing a review of the 3-disc set entitled Dizzy Gillespie in South America which Dave released under the banner of his Red Anchor Productions, I wrote to Dave and asked for his permission to use his interview with composer-arranger Lalo Schifrin [Vol. 2] in a video that I was preparing to accompany the blog posting.

Dave graciously wrote back right away and you can view the results of his approval in one of the video that concludes this piece. You can locate my two-part CD review by searching the blog archives for Dizzy Gillespie in South America: Parts 1 and 2 [January 18, 2014].

I have also included at conclusion of this review a video on Dizzy that features Dizzy Orchestra’s performing Cool Breeze from that 1956 South American tour.

Music is Forever, Dizzy Gillespie, the Jazz Legend and Me is available in both a paper bound and Kindle edition from Amazon, and as a paperback edition from Barnes & Noble.

Harmonically and rhythmically, Dizzy Gillespie gave us the basis for preserving and moving forward with the phrasing that alto saxophonist Charlie Parker used in developing the melodic aspects of Bebop.

In teaching Bebop to others, Diz used the two-foot rule: any musician within 2-feet of Dizzy who wanted to learn the language of Bop got a lesson.

I was one of those who got a lesson, although in my case, it had to do with the sound of my ride cymbal.

Dizzy’s group was appearing at The Lighthouse Cafe in 1962. Howard Rumsey, the bassist who managed the music at the club was moving away from his set group of Lighthouse All-Stars which had been in place since 1949 to booking name bands into the club.

But in doing so, he kept another tradition that he also instituted in 1949 going: the 2:00 PM to 2:00 AM “All-Day” Sunday Session. He hired groups of young Jazz musicians to perform at the club from 5:30 - 8:30 PM to give the name band musicians a dinner break.

Over the years, Howard had created an enclosed room above the Lighthouse Cafe bandstand that served as a place for musicians to hang out between sets. It also served as his office and housed tape recorders that engineers used for “live” recordings at the club [and whatever else Howard may have wanted to tape].

Needless to say, with Dizzy in residence at the club, there was a constant procession of musicians who wanted to meet the Great Man, including the guys in my band.

During the 3-hour break, Dizzy didn’t leave the club, but had food sent up from one of the local eateries.

After the first set, the melody and harmony guys in my band went up to meet Dizzy and to level a barrage of questions at him, mostly to do with harmonic substitutions.

Not wanting to be left out of the opportunity to meet Diz, I tagged along. After patiently answering what seemed like an endless stream of questions from the horn men, Diz looked at me and said: “And you, ask Chuck Lampkin [Dizzy’s drummer] if you can use his ride cymbal for a set.” When I asked “why” he explained that the overtones from my ride cymbal were “... too jarring and not blending in well.”

The cymbal in question was a 20” K-Zildjan medium-ride cymbal, that had been drilled for stainless steel rivets and was flanged around the outer edges [turned up]. I had to admit that it was fun to play on and produced a much more mellow sound.

I found out later [from drummer Mickey Roker] that Dizzy carried that cymbal with him everywhere and made every drummer in his various groups over the years play that thing behind him when he soloed.

Sometimes referred to as a Turkish Trash Cymbal, or just a Trash Cymbal, it took me awhile to find one back in the day, but once I did, I never went anywhere without my “Dizzy Gillespie cymbal.”

Upon his passing, composer-arranger-pianist Lalo Schifrin, said of Diz:

"People should understand the importance that Dizzy Gillespie had in the history of Jazz but also on music of the 20th century...."

Thanks to Dave and Bert's efforts in compiling and writing Music is Forever, there is now another primary source in print to further an understanding of Dizzy's significance.

Here’s the rest of Bert’s intro to the book which will tell you all you need to know about how it came to be written.

“I first met Dave Usher sometime in 1991, and that meeting resulted from circumstances that occurred about two or three years earlier.

I was vice president of communications for a Detroit-based company and had written a letter to the editor of a business journal, lambasting its irresponsible coverage of my employer. Dave read the letter and when he met the chairman of the company I was working for at a social event, Dave told my boss that he was impressed. He wondered if I would do some work for him. Of course, that was impossible since I had a full-time job.

However, after I resigned from that position and founded my own PR company in 1989,1 included Dave on a list of potential clients that I intended to contact. I wanted to pursue the possibility that he might still be interested in PR work. I asked the chairman if he remembered the name of Dave's company, but he didn't. My research — checking all the phone books in the area searching for a company whose name might begin with "Usher"— proved futile. Regretfully, I ended my search. C'est la vie.

As luck would have it, one day I was reading the business section of a local paper and saw a photo of Dave Usher and a story about his company, Marine Pollution Control (MPC), which he founded.

I wrote Dave a letter, outlining what my former employer had told me, and Dave responded by inviting me to lunch. We ate, we talked — for about two to three hours — and, as they say, the rest is history. I was hired to assist with PR for MFC and the Spill Control Association of America (SCAA) which Dave also founded and was president of for many years.

Our relationship quickly developed into one of total mutual trust and respect, and, in fact, into a close personal friendship. Dave, I discovered, was a mensch, a Jewish word meaning that the individual has a heart and soul, and he/she is a person of honor and integrity. If anyone ever fit all the nuances of that word, it was Dave.

I learned that while demonstrating a tough and rough exterior, frequently coloring his language with profanity, he was actually a softy. He had a big heart and suffered fools too long, both in his professional and personal relationships. He just couldn't seem to cut ties even when warranted and well overdue. And I know he knows, though he may not admit it, he has paid a price for his humanity.

As I carried out my PR responsibilities for MPC, I discovered Dave's history with Dizzy Gillespie and the world of jazz. He told fascinating stories although he told them very matter-of-factly. There was no bragging, but just a recounting of his years in jazz, and his friendship with Dizzy which he valued immensely. It is no exaggeration to indicate he considered Dizzy a brother, as Dave states frequently in this book.

On one occasion, when Dizzy was in Detroit and stayed at Dave's apartment, I met the jazz giant and exchanged a few pleasantries with him. I was tempted to ask him to play a few bars. I was confident Dizzy would have done so, but I didn't ask, believing it would be an imposition.

Listening to Dave's stories, I recognized that he was a part of music history, important history that needed to be documented and saved. Here was a white Jew from the North and a black man from the South who practiced the Baha'i Faith, partnering to develop and promote jazz. And it was not just with Dizzy. Because of his relationship with Dizzy, Dave met, worked with and befriended some of this country's most outstanding jazz musicians: John "Trane" Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Baron "Toots" Thielemans, Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, Annie Ross, The Jones Brothers, Yusef Lateef, and many others. I was in awe and a little jealous.

Moreover, this partnership with Dizzy began in 1944, at a time when race was still an incendiary issue. The South remained segregated; Brown v. Board of Education which would hold that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, would not be handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court for another 10 years. Even after the Supreme Court ruling, Southern governors continued to defy court orders and the federal government to integrate schools, and lynching in the South was not yet a matter of history.

It is true that black musicians had "relationships" with record companies run by whites and with white agents, but these, as Dave indicates in his story, were, at times, tinged with distrust. Black artists knew that some white executives in the music business were exploiting them. With limited opportunities, if black musicians wanted increased exposure for their music they had no choice but to accept contracts and financial offers that were not always fair.

The Dizzy-Dave relationship piqued my curiosity. How did they meet? How was this Gillespie-Usher partnership born? Did they discuss the racial implications of their friendship? Did they consider that they might not be accepted? Was there resentment from white and/or black musicians? What was it like to work with Dizzy and the other world-class artists? I had so many questions, questions I believed Dave needed to answer not to satisfy my curiosity, but to satisfy history.

So I asked Dave whether he would be interested in working on a book on his Dizzy/jazz experiences. I argued that this history needed to be saved. He had a unique story that deserved and had to be recorded for millions of jazz fans, and future generations. I implied, subtly, that he almost had an obligation to do so. Dave reacted passively. "Yes," he said, "it sounds like a good idea. Maybe you're right. I’ll sleep on it."

After I worked for Dave for about two years, he faced financial pressures at MFC, and told me he could no longer afford PR and ended our professional relationship. It was evident in his voice that it hurt him to do so. He felt bad for me, and he kept apologizing. I told him I understood and respected his decision. We maintained our friendship, and had lunch two, three times a year, as I did with Dave's son, Charlie, who became president of MFC in 2004. Dave and I called each other on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) wishing each other a gut yontiff (good holiday.)

The years passed, but he never raised the subject of the book, although I would revisit the issue with him periodically. The answer was always the same: "I'll think about it, sleep on it." And that he did for some 20 years.

I had given up until after I published a mobster thriller in December 2011. I was quasi-retired and found myself with time on my hands. I decided to call Dave and ask him again. This time his response was a bit more positive. I sensed a different tone in his voice. He listened more closely. I said I didn't need a decision during the phone conversation, but that I would call back in a few days (Dave, at 82 at the time, couldn't wait another 20 years, and I, at 73, couldn't either) and when I did call, it was apparent he had more interest than he'd had years earlier. Actually, he said, "Yes, let's do it."

I set up an appointment at his apartment by the Detroit River just west of downtown Detroit at which I outlined the entire process — the interviews, how much time I would need, my time commitments in writing a draft, reviewing drafts, legal considerations, searching for a publisher, marketing. At the same session, I spent more than two hours delving into his family history.

That was the first of many interviews, all of which I tape-recorded. I interviewed him over a seven-month period. He never tired of the process; he was never impatient no matter how trivial the point I was pursuing. He seemed to enjoy revisiting his past.

I also interviewed musicians who worked with Dizzy and knew Dave well, and I reviewed an archival catalogue covering Dave's 50-year relationship with Dizzy that was compiled by Carol Branston, one of Dave's long-time friends.

As I indicated, Dave is really a softy, his salty language and tough exterior notwithstanding. On numerous occasions, when he discussed particularly poignant remembrances, his eyes would tear up, and sometimes he would cry. I must admit, I fought hard to control my emotions when I saw his tears which were sometimes happy ones, and at other times sad, depending on the respective recollections.

One of the truly bewildering aspects of the interviews was that Dave never referred to any records. He did not make any notes or review papers or documents in anticipation of my questions. He did it all from memory. He could recall dates, spellings, and minor details most people would forget within a few days of their occurrence. Not Dave. He remembered everything.

He remembered street addresses and even apartment numbers in buildings he visited decades earlier. For instance, when he told me that in 1948 the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) enforced a recording ban on artists to protest the financial deals offered by record companies, deals it found unacceptable, he explained that the ban was the work of its president, James C. Petrillo. He recalled the AFM president's name, including the middle initial, and this had happened more than 60 years earlier. Actually, I had noticed this aptitude while working for him.

Throughout my relationship with Dave, I was continually impressed by how he engendered admiration and trust from all those who crossed his path, whether the relationships were professional or personal. The reason, I believe, was that he was committed to an uncompromising standard of honesty and integrity. Some may have disagreed with him on issues, but everyone respected him.

Dave also related fascinating stories on how his father was among the first to launch a recycling business by collecting and refining used motor oil, and how he, Dave, helped pioneer the oil spill and hazardous material cleanup industry. Indeed, Dave became one of the world's leading experts in the business.

When President George Herbert Walker Bush asked the U.S. Coast Guard, after the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, dumped millions of gallons of oil in the Persian Gulf during "Desert Storm" in 1991, who had the best expertise to clean up the oil, he was told "Dave Usher" by U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joel D. Sipes. The President ordered Dave sent to the Gulf to represent the U.S. as an advisor to the Saudi Arabian government. The assignment almost cost Dave his life when he was caught in quicksand. The headquarters for the operation was located in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a coastal city on the Arabian Peninsula. During his first assignment, Dave was on foot inspecting an oil-damaged marsh when he suddenly began to sink. The quicksand was already above his waist when two coworkers managed to grab him under the armpits and pull him out. They literally yanked him out of his waders. When Dave described the incident, he told me, "My waders are still there." One of the men who saved Dave was MPC general manager, Jeff Heard, Dave's godson and nephew of the jazz drummer J.C. Heard.

After the U.S. ended its involvement in the cleanup, Dave was asked to continue work on the project for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the auspices of the United Nations. In all, "commuting" back and forth from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, he spent one year on the Persian Gulf cleanup operation. Specifically, while an IMO representative, he worked for the Saudi's Meteorological and Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA.)

A sensitive problem which had to be faced and solved in assigning Dave to the Gulf was the fact that he was Jewish. Saudi Arabia did not welcome Jews on its soil, frequently prohibiting entry, particularly if they were Israelis. It was an open question whether Dave would be admitted if the Saudis learned that he was Jewish; it was a risk that needed to be addressed. The Coast Guard raised the issue with President Bush, who ignored the implications that a Jew might be barred by the Saudis. The President simply told the Coast Guard, "Have him at hanger No. 6 at National Airport at 0600." (Dave was told of the President's comments to send him to the Gulf and how the President handled the "Jewish issue" by his Coast Guard contacts.)

However, after the U.S. ended its involvement in the cleanup, his religion became an entirely different matter. When Dave traveled on U.S. government aircrafts, he did not have to worry because he did not need to go through customs or have his passport cleared. When he started flying commercial, however, which he would have to do on many occasions, Dave realized he could face serious problems if the Saudis discovered that he was Jewish. IMO officials addressed the problem while Dave was sitting in a Jaguar, the IMO secretary general's car, in London. The solution they proposed was: When filling out the papers required by the Saudis, Dave was instructed to write "n/a" (not applicable) in the space asking him to declare his religion. He followed the advice and told me, "I never had any trouble." Incidentally, while in Saudi Arabia, Dave periodically telephoned Dizzy in the U.S., and each time Dizzy would ask him, "So did you find a good delicatessen yet? Because if I come over, I want to be able to eat some good kosher food."

After we finished the interviews, I began writing, and as chapters were completed, Dave reviewed the drafts, corrected errors, and suggested editorial changes he deemed appropriate.

I could not have had a more rewarding writing experience. I learned about Dizzy Gillespie, about some of the hallowed figures in jazz, and the contributions my friend — and I consider it a privilege to be able to call him my friend — made to this soul-searing music and how, in his other career, he helped protect the environment by developing sophisticated processes and techniques to clean up oil spills and hazardous materials.

In addition, our friendship seemed to grow during the process, and many interviews concluded with the exchange of warm hugs and testimonials on how much we valued the friendship of the other.

It took Dave 20 years to say "yes," and I am delighted he did. I believe we saved some important jazz history (along with a little Detroit history), and I had the opportunity to spend many delightful hours with this engaging man as he told me about his historic relationship and regaled me with countless warm and very moving stories.

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