Seven years ago today, with a government shutdown settled (for the time being), President Obama turned his attention back to a vexing issue causing him heartburn and no small measure of personal ignominy: the administration's botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
Implementing Obamacare, as its opponents called it (a moniker the president privately enjoyed), was always going to have its hiccups, especially in "red" states where it was actively undermined by Republican lawmakers. But these rollout glitches were so widespread as to be inexplicable. And so the president took to the Rose Garden to explain how the government was improvising to try and make the system work.
But what, as I wrote at the time, is Oct. 21 if not a day to celebrate the beauty of improvisation? I'm alluding, as jazz aficionados may have guessed, to the birth date of Dizzy Gillespie.
"Dizzy" Gillespie was born in the South Carolina hamlet of Cheraw on Oct. 21, 1917, and christened John Birks Gillespie. His father was a bricklayer by day and a local bandleader by night. The son picked up this talent -- and the trumpet -- by his early teens. When he was 16, his family moved north to Philadelphia, where he played in local bands. Bill Doggett, the famed Philly blues pianist, fired Gillespie from one gig when he realized the boy couldn't read music well enough. But a pattern had been established: Gillespie would wear out his welcome, strike out on his own, and reach an even higher level of success.
After leaving Doggett, the young man hooked on with bandleader Frankie Fairfax, whose orchestra included skilled trumpeter Charlie Shavers, who called Gillespie the "Cheraw Flash." The name that stuck, however, was "Dizzy," in homage to Gillespie's fondness for jokes and eclectic sartorial style. There is dispute among jazz historians as to who conferred the moniker. Some say it was trumpeter Palmer Davis, who noticed that Gillespie's chair was empty -- the kid was fooling around on the piano -- and called to drummer Norman Dibble, "Where's Dizzy?" Others say that "Dizzy" Gillespie was inaugurated by Teddy Hill, another band leader who played regularly at the Savoy Ballroom. Or maybe it was Dizzy himself.
There is also dispute about who launched the infamous spitball that landed on stage the night Dizzy was playing with Cab Calloway's band in Hartford, Conn., in September 1941. Gillespie denied being the culprit, but was disbelieved by Calloway, who showed the depth of his displeasure with his fists. On the wrong end of a beating, Dizzy pulled a knife and slashed Calloway's rear end. The wounds healed, but the rift between the two men did not: Dizzy was once again on his own. This was to the benefit of American music's evolution.
The year before, on tour with Calloway's band, Gillespie had met Charlie Parker in Kansas City. In their jamming sessions, the two began experimenting with a new form. Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke would contribute, too, and by the time they were done, bebop had been created.
By 1945, Gillespie assembled a big band, the first of many, and later that year he gathered together a quintet that the great Charlie Parker crowed was "the height of perfection in our music." Besides Gillespie on the horn and Parker on sax, the fivesome boasted bassist Ray Brown, drummer Max Roach, and Bud Powell at the piano.
After the war, American music was ready for yet another fusion and again Gillespie was up to the task, with help from two Cuban musicians, trumpeter Mario Bauza and conga player Luciano Gonzalez, who played under the stage name Chano Pozo.
"Dizzy used to ask me about Cuban rhythms all the time," Bauza later related. "I introduced him to Chano Pozo. … It was a good marriage of two cultures. That was the beginning of Afro-Cuban jazz. That blew up the whole world."
But what of the incident that blew up Cab Calloway's band? Mario Bauza was also the man who made the introduction of Gillespie to Calloway. So who tossed the spitball? Jazz writer Gary Giddins names legendary bass player Milt Hinton as the guilty party. In a documentary on the episode, respected filmmaker Jean Bach fingers a different culprit: trumpeter Jonah Jones.
Could these guys just be taking the fall for Gillespie? Perhaps. Dizzy died in 1993, but before leaving this vale, he was asked directly if he'd tossed the spitball. His reply, captured in Bach's film, was: "Not that time."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.