History

Dizzy Gillespie (No Relation) on World War II Service

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Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie (no relation, alas) woulda been 93 today. He's got a special Google search engine doodle going on and he got 4-F status during World War II by telling his recruitment officer:

At this stage in my life here in the United States whose foot has been in my ass? The white man's foot has been in my ass hole buried up to his knee in my ass hole!…Now you're speaking of the enemy. You're telling me the German is the enemy. At this point, I can never even remember having met a German. So if you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot at the enemy, I'm liable to create a case of "mistaken identity," of who I might shoot.

That's from A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell (Jesse Walker mentioned the book just yesterday), in a chapter titled, "Just How Popular Was World War II?"

Muhammad Ali fans will doubtless recognize a premonition of Ali's famous Vietnam Era explanation of why refused to serve: "No Vietcong ever called me nigger."

Russell, who teaches at Occidental College, notes that, despite the well-documented contributions of many black soldiers and fighting outfits in World War II, African Americans "comprised 35 percent of the naiton's delinquent draft registrants and more than 18 percent of those imprisoned for draft evasion…. There is ample evidence to show that African Americans did not feel that it was their war." Which makes a fair amount of sense, given that the United States was still in the throes of Jim Crow and the forces themselves were segregated.

American entry into World War II became extremely popular after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Yet it also was the first time that the U.S. government recognized conscientious objectors as a legitimate group. Read more about that here.

Here's a Real Audio link to a Gillespie recording of "4-F Blues," featuring Charlie Parker and Clyde Hart's All Stars. More info on the song, which is definitely not the sort of patriotic fare we normally associate with World War II. I am generally not a fan of evaluating the aesthetic value of something through a strictly ideological lense and I hope that readers put off by Gillespie's politics as evinced above can nonetheless enjoy the playing. If all jazz sounded like that, I might even be a fan. 

Longtime readers will know that I owe my very existence to the prescient draft-dodging of my Gillespie and Guida grandfathers, both of whom wisely opted out of fighting in World War I (as Irish and Italian peasants, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by signing up for that exercise in futility and destruction). And that while I have nothing but respect for veterans (including my own father, who fought in World War II), there's little doubt in my mind that the U.S. government sees war and military interventions in too-facile terms, to say the least. One question left by Russell's account of black reactions to World War II is why a similar response wasn't more pronounced among Italian Americans. As he documents, at that point in history, Italians in the U.S. had been routinely characterized as below blacks in many ways. Yet my oldest Italian-American uncle, born in 1919, not only happily served in World War II, he readily fought in the invasion of his parents' homeland. Go figure.

Hat tip: Doug Mataconis' Twitter feed.