November 07, 2011
True Celebrity: When I think of the word celebrity I invariably go back to a dreary Saturday back in the early 1990's at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. I was a young fresh-out-of-college Capitol Hill staffer working for one of the most powerful African American members of congress. And, as the staffer who handled all things Jazz, among education, alcohol advertisements to minorities, and banking I was told by my boss that I had to work on a Saturday. I balked. He told me "Singla, you'll come to remember this as one of the best moments of your life."
I obliged and showed up at the Smithsonian wearing a black skirt, blue wool sweater, and heels. I waited patiently for the limo to pull up and the Congressman's friend step out. He took one look at me - up, down, up again - and let out a whistle. My guard was up. A Smithsonian staffer gently said, "Mr. Gillespie, this is John Conyers' aid." All the stranger said was, "Woo Hee. That cat's got good taste." Everyone laughed. Including me.
It's hard to stay mad at a personality like Dizzy Gillespie.
It was a year before he was to suddenly be taken away from us. (How were we to know?) And I had just written up legislation for him to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor (it was never passed). I was there to meet him and John Hasse, the curator of the Jazz Department for the Smithsonian was there to show everyone around the Smithsonian's acquisitions of various jazz greats including Duke Ellington.
What followed is a much longer story for another time, but one moment still sticks even after all these years. We were standing in an open area and people were starting to whisper all around us. Slowly, people started walking up to us, asking us slowly and meekly if it was indeed THE DIZ. He nodded and obliged with autographs. After the swarm slowed down, he turned to me, put one arm around my shoulders and whispered, "How do they know who I am?"
I stared silently for a moment - incredulous - thinking he was surely joking. Then I whispered in his ear with a slight smile, "Well, maybe because you have on a very colorful African-print jumpsuit with a name tag stitched on it that says, "Dizzy". He laughed a huge, bellied laugh and gave me an even bigger hug.
That day I met a true celebrity. Someone who gives everything of himself not to become famous but to share with the world. Not to be recognized on every street corner but to be recognized for his notes. His cheeks and his songs. His vibe. His energy. And how it makes you feel when you hear those notes dance from his famous trumpet.
As I now navigate the world of food celebrity I am always brought back to that moment. There are the true heroes and celebrities who are on stage and TV to make a connection with the audience rather than a name for themselves. Chefs who just love taking questions, look you in the eye when they talk to you, the ones who talk to all the prep chefs in the back kitchen. The ones who are as excited to meet you as you are them.
And then there are the others. Folks who loudly complain about the lack of equipment in a demo. The ones who criticize their sponsors for providing a stove that happened not to light that day of the demo. And other chefs who walk around with so much 'support staff' that even getting in a word in edgewise would require security clearance. Who are these people? And what has given them the right to be so inaccessible when their careers were determined by the very people who they are trying to now avoid? This past weekend I was disappointed to listen to a chef talk on stage into a microphone about Indian cuisine and another celebrity chef disparagingly. I won't add to the negativity by naming names, but I have to say it was a huge learning lesson for me as everyone in the audience whispered their surprise at the omission.
Focus on the message. Forget the garbage. And love, love everyone. Dizzy did...
While he played..and played...and played.