Slim Gaillard was genuinely hip, wild, and funny. (Bob Horne said, “His mellow baritone would have more than sufficed for a career as a ballad singer, had his sense of humor not intervened.”) He not only had more than his share of adventures to write about, he invented his own language with which to write about them.
The details of his biography are vague and shifting. He might have been born in Florida or Cuba or Detroit, in 1911 or 1916 or 1918. His father might have been Greek or German and his mother might have been Cuban. He grew up in Cuba cutting sugar cane and picking bananas, maybe. His father, who was a ship’s steward, took him on a tour of the world, but accidentally left him in Crete when he was twelve years old. “When I was stranded in Crete, I was only twelve years old. I stayed there for four years. I traveled on the boats to Beirut and Syria and I learned to speak the language and the people’s way of life.” Who knows where he thought he was going when at fifteen he caught the ship that brought him to Detroit, but he never saw either of his parents again.
In Detroit he worked in an abattoir, or at Ford, or as a mortician, or as a boxer or bootleg rum runner. He performed in Harlem with bassist Slam Stewart and in LA with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Jack Kerouac saw him perform in San Francisco and wrote about it in On the Road, describing him as having big sad eyes. “…the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages. Finally the set is over; each set takes two hours. Slim Gaillard goes and stands against a post, looking sadly over everybody’s head as people come to talk to him.”
Slim Gaillard is a true American eccentric, even down to the fact that he might not have been born in America, but had a front-seat view of all of our foibles and madnesses. We have always been strange people. We’re strange in many languages. There’s a freedom to our eccentricity, a freedom of odd speech.
Slim played all the instruments. For his first recording Genius, he overdubbed every part: piano, organ, trombone, vibes, vocals, bass, drum, tenor, sax. His songs are crazy-wonderful. Lively, contagious, thoughtful, and with a poetry all their own. They tell perfectly flowing stories in a nonsense language that somehow makes perfect sense. He spoke 8 languages, as well as Vout, his own language, for which he wrote a dictionary. Vout is a brilliant, wild, dada-esque combination of all the languages he knew as well as jazz jive and slang. COLOR-VEE-TEE is a butterfly, CRE-O-Chee is winter, FLY-FU is a bird, LOVELIGHT is the moon, LIGHT-SET is the afternoon, and the whole round world is the GLOBE-O-VOOTY.
Reading the patchwork story of Slim Gaillard’s life, it’s hard not to imagine him lonely and lost at times, dimmed by discouragement despite all of his brightness and brilliance. But he wove those experiences into a vital bursting whirlwind of creativity, and shared them in a language full of music and power.
thanks for writing about Slim. I’m a super big fan. Have you seen the four part British “documentary” about him. It’s great! In one of them he cooks dinner for Dizzy Gillespie. If you see it you will know why I put documentary in quotes.
I’ve read about it but haven’t seen it! You always seem to have a deeper insight into things I write about. If you ever want to write about anything yourself I would more than welcome it!
It’s on You Tube. Deeper? Hardly. You seem pretty deep to me!
I’ll keep the offer in mind.