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You Can’t Steal a Gift—Dizzy, Clark, Milt and Nat by Gene Lees

Even though Gene Lees wasn’t present at the creation of jazz, he knew most its originators, and there are few chroniclers of jazz left who can say that.

One of them, Nat Hentoff, writes in the foreword of Lee’s latest book, You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt and Nat, that Lees is not just a jazz critic or journalist, but a musician, singer and lyricist who, unlike most who write about jazz, is one of the family. It’s clear in these lovingly crafted stories of four great musicians that Lees thought of them as much more than names on marquees or magazines. Don’t come to this book expecting to find “objective” journalism, but that’s not to say that the book is an exercise in hagiography.

What his four subjects-trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, bassist/photographer Milt Hinton and pianist/singer Nat “King” Cole-have most in common, beyond their extraordinary artistry, is their immense decency and humanity. Lees doesn’t have to cut them down to size. They arrived on earth with hardwired humility. That’s what Lees finds so much to admire in the quartet, and it is difficult to deny.

All four were black men born at a time of brutally enforced segregation throughout much of the nation. Hinton was born in 1910; Cole and Gillespie in 1917; Terry in 1920.

“Nothing prepared me for one simple symbol,” Canada-born Lees writes about the time of his arrival in the United States in 1955. The symbol was of segregation-separate toilets for black and white-in the train station at Louisville, Ky., where he had arrived to be the classical-music critic for the Louisville Times. Lees fell in love with jazz while in Louisville, and in 1959 he became the editor of Down Beat, where he once offered to quit rather than follow the owner’s order of “no more Negroes on the cover.”

“I told one black friend in Louisville,” Lee writes, “‘Had I been born Negro in this country, I’d have probably killed somebody before I was 20.'”

“‘No you wouldn’t,’ his friend said. “‘You’d have learned to live with it, as we do.'”

“Maybe,” Lees writes.

He marvels at the grace of Clark Terry who was beaten senseless by a billy-club-wielding white man and left to drown, face down, in a puddle of water. Terry was saved by a group of white men. “And from that time,” Terry told Lees, “I never generalize about race, creed, color, nationality or anything else. Never.” For many, it may seem a miracle that a man can take away a positive message from a brutal beating, but Lees sees that Terry did.

Similarly, Nat “King” Cole was playing in front of a white audience in Birmingham, Ala., in 1956, when a group of white men climbed on the stage and one hit Cole in the mouth with a microphone. After the assailants were subdued, the white audience asked Cole back on stage so they could apologize to him. The Birmingham mayor apologized as well. Cole took it in stride, telling reporters that what the hoodlums had done had “backfired…because thousands of white people in the audience could see how terrible it is for an innocent man to be subjected to such barbaric treatment.”

Perhaps in 1956 Cole was right, but in 1916 the messages must have been different and far more demoralizing.

Milt Hinton told Lees the story of him walking home, through the Vicksburg, Miss., white district 40 years before the optimistic Cole was smashed in the mouth. Hinton saw a black man “dangling by the neck on a cable from a tree limb. He was covered in blood, apparently already dead. The men, dancing drunkenly around the tree and swigging from whiskey jugs, kept firing bullets into the body. Then they pushed a drum filled with gasoline under the body and set it afire. The flames leapt up and Milt saw the body sizzling and turning black like, he remembered, a piece of bacon, and a ghastly stench filled the air.”

Gillespie had his own demons, and they weren’t all in the form of white men.

“Dizzy told friends and interviewers that he was terrified of his father, James Gillespie, a bricklayer and weekend piano player who beat him and his brothers every Sunday morning, whether they had done anything wrong during the week or not. This didn’t break the boy’s spirit; on the contrary, it made him into a prankster and fighter.”

This isn’t to say that the book is about racism or brutality only. It is about the expression of genius in the face of racism and brutality. It is about continuing to give when others wanted to stop the giving.

All four had irrepressible genius: Gillespie’s humor; Clark’s expressivities; Hinton’s generosity; Cole’s compassion. Lees helps us hear it all better.

Originally Published