I Was My Father’s Secret

Singer Jeanie Bryson always knew she was Dizzy Gillespie's daughter. It's just that the world didn't.

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Jeanie Bryson is a world-class jazz musician. Known for her sultry crooning, she enjoyed a 29-year career marked by several international tours and much critical acclaim. Then, in 1993, she told the world a truth she had never told anyone: she was the sole daughter of legendary jazz trumpeter and band leader Dizzy Gillespie. Since she was born out of wedlock, Jeanie felt that, while she and her father shared a good relationship,  exposing the truth would hurt too many people. When she did come clean about her dad, Jeanie was met with fierce criticism. Jeanie didn’t understand it. After all, Dizzy was her father. Why couldn’t she tell her story? 

Bryson, who is now working on a book about her memories with her father, spoke about growing up 50 percent Gillespie, her father’s impact on her career, and what it felt like to keep such a life-long secret.

My father was married to the same woman for 50 years. I’m his only child, even though I was born outside of the marriage. I knew from birth that he was my father. My mother, Connie Bryson, always took me to see him and I had a relationship with him. I would mostly see him playing gigs in New York because he traveled 300 days out of the year.

But I was a secret. It was just something that I understood was something to not tell people about, because I was protecting him and my relationship with him. If anyone found out that we were seeing each other, it would have been a problem. He was not the traditional dad, not at all. Let’s just put it this way: I remember being 18, going to see him in a club, going out to a van that was parked outside, and sharing a joint with him.

It was hard for me to not be able to say who my dad was. When I was 14, my best friend was at my house and we were watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And on walks my father. And I couldn’t tell her. I’m sitting there, on my bed, watching Johnny Carson, my father’s there, and my very best friend in the world doesn’t know. I had a cover story about my life.

When I was 14, my best friend was at my house and we were watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And on walks my father. And I couldn’t tell her.

I was very precocious and mature and I just understood that I couldn’t tell anybody, and I didn’t for a long time. I only came out with it publicly in 1993. And then there was blowback from people that felt that it wasn’t “nice” for me to tell. I’ve thought a lot of about it over the years and this is my father. No matter who he was married to, I’m still 50 percent of Dizzy. All of the sudden I felt empowered to say, Who are you to tell me about talking about the person who brought me into this world? You wouldn’t believe what happened to me. I was taken off of jazz festivals, radio stations were called up and threatened by my father’s attorneys if they mentioned I was Dizzy’s daughter. It was really a nightmare.

I’ve had a lot of interviews in my life and most people ask me what kind of influence my father had on me musically, and I always kind of said, “I don’t know,” because my mother was the huge musical influence on me. When I was little, she taught me the standards. I realized my father gave me a window into what it would be like to be a professional musician.

Seeing my father pretty much exclusively in musical settings, backstage, at gigs, gave me this romantic view of what it would be like to do that. I never realized that had affected me until I said a million times, “Oh, my father didn’t affect me.” All of the sudden it was like, wait a second, I never would have known how enticing that world was. I was seeing that world at the highest level.

Our musical styles were about as different as they could be. My father’s trademark was playing faster and higher than any other trumpet player had ever played before. Nobody had ever heard anybody play like that. His lightning speed and his dexterity were in the stratosphere. My style is very dark. You couldn’t find anybody that would be any different than Dizzy’s and my voice.

You should have heard them speaking about me. They were talking about how much I physically reminded them of my father: “Look at her hands! Look at the way she counts off the tune!”

He once saw me sing at a club in New York. Stan Getz was there, too. He was an idol of mine, because of the Bossanova craze. At that show, Dizzy turned to Stan and said, “She sounds just like me,” and the Stan said, “No man, she sounds just like Miles.” Miles Davis’ famous quote was something like, “The space between the notes can be just as important as the notes.”

I ended up hiring my father’s whole United Nations orchestra and I did my second record with them. You should have heard them speaking about me. They were talking about how much I physically reminded them of my father: “Look at her hands! Look at the way she counts off the tune!”

When my husband, Coleman Mellett, and I were in Ireland in 2006 for a family reunion on Coley’s side, I sent an email to the Cork Jazz Festival. I wrote a quick note and I said, “Hi, I’d love to talk to somebody about doing your festival sometime.” We met the creator of the Cork Jazz Festival. He said: “Do you think you would ever consider doing a tribute to your father?” I had never thought of it. Dizzy would have turned 90 in 2007, and he thought it might be really cool to do something special for his birthday.

For the next nine months, I started thinking about ways to do it in my own voice. Each song that I picked was something really special to me and about what my father meant to me. He always said that “Round Midnight” was his favorite song in the whole world, so I chose that. It was the hardest I ever worked on any musical project. He once sang a duet with Carmen McCrae. He played a cassette tape of me for Carmen when I was a teenager, and she took the tape to listen to it and wouldn’t give it back to him. We did the Cork Jazz Festival in fall of 2007. I did The Dizzy Gillespie Songbook and I loved it.

People wanted to see him as this saint. And he just wasn’t. He just wasn’t that. But does that make him any less than what he was? I say no. And I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for him.

I did a few more shows with that and then in February of 2009, my husband was killed in a plane crash in Buffalo, New York, where 50 people died. It took a really long time to even be a human being again. After singing for 29 years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s why The Dizzy Songbook kind of disappeared. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t pursued that and why I’m not singing anymore. I haven’t flown since the crash, and it’s pretty hard to be a musician at that level and not fly.

Jeff Levinsohn, who wrote for Billboard about jazz, said something like “Dizzy was no saint. But he was an angel.” And I love that. Because why should it take away from how people feel about Dizzy that he was an imperfect man in his marriage? He was so generous with his spirit and so loved. Why does my being on the earth stain his memory? Why can’t someone look at me and think, well jeez, this is a pretty good person here that he created?

I know that I’m a good person. It was just blanketly that, because my mother and father weren’t married, that obviously my mother’s a bad person, and I’m a bad person. It’s just so antiquated. I think it’s because Dizzy was held to such a high regard. He wasn’t Charlie Parker. He wasn’t shooting heroin in alleys and dying at 34. People wanted to see him as this saint. And he just wasn’t. He just wasn’t that. But does that make him any less than what he was? I say no. And I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for him.

— As Told To Lizzy Francis

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