The best jazz requires improvisation. So do the best lives. You can’t buy sheet music that tells you how to live. Improvise, man. Improvise.
Chuck Redd is Dalphine’s son. He’s a jazz drummer. He met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in 1980 or 1981 when they were both playing at a festival in Switzerland. Months later, Dizzy was at Blues Alley in Georgetown for the week-long residency he did every year over the Thanksgiving holidays. Chuck didn’t expect the trumpeter to remember him, but when he sidled over, Dizzy welcomed him warmly.
“He gave me a big hug,” said Chuck. “We’re chatting and the manager of Blues Alley said, ‘You know, Chuck’s mom is a fantastic cook.’ ”
Dizzy looked at Chuck and said: “Can I come over for dinner?”
Chuck thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
Chuck found a phone and called his mom: “Dizzy would like to come to dinner tomorrow night. She said, ‘Sure.’ ”
Dalphine and her husband, Israel “Kay” Redd, grew up in Virginia. Together, they ran a business in Maryland selling two-way radios to taxi companies. Kay was good friends with guitarist Charlie Byrd. Dalphine was known for her Southern hospitality.
All the Redds were known for their love of music. (Sometimes, when Chuck was practicing the drums in the basement, Dalphine would shout down: “I loved that one. I can’t keep my feet still.”)
The Redd basement became a gathering place for jam sessions, Chuck on the drums, his younger brother, Robert, on piano, Dalphine upstairs whipping up plates of chicken wings.
Chuck can’t remember if that first time Dizzy came was on Thanksgiving. (He does remember that among the small entourage Dizzy brought was drummer Bernard Purdie.) But for the next eight or nine years, Dizzy had an open invitation on the holiday.
It was an invitation Dizzy engineered himself while he was being interviewed the following year on a D.C. jazz station.
“Dizzy announced on the radio, ‘If any of the Redds are listening, I want to come to dinner,’ ” Dalphine, now 94 and living with Robert’s family in Bethesda, Md., told me.
Thanksgiving was a day-long affair, with people dropping in all afternoon for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, macaroni salad, ham, meatloaf, corn pudding, cornbread and pumpkin pie.
“You name it, she had it,” Chuck said. “I don’t know how she did it in our little kitchen.”
Chuck would drive over to Georgetown around 2:30 p.m. to pick up Dizzy at his hotel. They’d hang at the Redds’ house till 6 or so, when Chuck would drive Dizzy back for his evening show at Blues Alley.
Sometimes, when the car was stopped at a light next to some kids, Dizzy would turn, purse his lips and blow his cheeks up like a bullfrog. Most of those kids probably didn’t know they’d just seen the man with the bent horn who, with Charlie Parker, had invented bebop.
Over the years that Dizzy Gillespie came to dinner, Chuck’s dad was in declining health, afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Eventually, Kay would be upstairs in his bedroom. Dizzy would sit by his bed for a while. One year, Dizzy noticed Kay was absent and asked where he was.
At a rehabilitation center, he was told.
“How far away?” Dizzy asked.
Twenty minutes, Chuck said.
“Let’s go,” said Dizzy.
Chuck has played with a lot of great musicians — he later even played with Dizzy — but those Thanksgiving years stand out. They seem almost surreal to him now. Dizzy, who died in 1993, loved drummers. But Chuck knows the real draw was Dalphine.
“Part of it, I think, is that she wasn’t the least bit star-struck,” he said. “That’s not what it was about. She was meeting this guy and thinking, ‘Boy, he’s fun.’
“And he was meeting her and thinking, ‘Boy, she’s fun.’ It was just a lesson in humanity.”
Of all the stories Chuck told me about Dizzy Gillespie, I think this is my favorite: “After the meal, if he still had some time, he would lean back on our couch and take a little nap.”
This Thanksgiving, most of us are deprived of the people we cherish, the loved ones who make up our family band. Improvise. Lean back, take a nap and dream of yesterday’s Thanksgivings — and tomorrow’s.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.