Slim Gaillard's Civilisation

A four-part BBC documentary

Here's the story.

Born in Cuba in 1916, Gaillard went to sea with his dad at 12 and got stranded alone on the island of Crete and didn't make it back to the US until he was 15.

Either that or he was born June 1918 in Claiborne, Alabama!

Whatever the case, Gaillard made his first public splash in Detroit where he ran booze as a young guy during Prohibition for the notorious Purple Gang. It was at this time he developed his interest in music.

When Duke Ellington came to Detroit, Gaillard slipped backstage to meet him.

Duke told him: "I like you because you're studying music properly."

Determined to become a musical entertainer, Gaillard moved to New York City and entered the world of show business as a 'professional amateur' where he once shared a billing with young Frank Sinatra.

And that's just the beginning of his musical story.

A truly singular human being as this four part documentary from the BBC shows.

'Look at the clocks - it doesn't matter if they're wrong. Somewhere in the world the time is right.' A typical line from Slim Gaillard. He became a jazz legend, collaborating with Charlie Parker; he was a Second World War bomber pilot; Marvin Gaye 's father-in-law; and is fluent in Greek, Arabic, Spanish and his own 'Vout-o-Reenee' language; he appeared in 25 films including Hellzapoppin' and Roots; and drove a hearse for the notorious Purple Gang.

Since he was stranded alone in Crete, aged 12, on a voyage from his native Cuba, Slim's life has been a spectacular, and sometimes traumatic, adventure.


In 1938 jazz legend and international star Slim Gaillard went to Hollywood to appear in Hellzapoppin: and then war broke out. Gaillard became one of America's first black bomber pilots; he recalls that profound and traumatic experience. With the help of Van Morrison he re-enacts a famous encounter with his beat disciple, novelist Jack Kerouac; he settles an old score with Little Richard; appears on America's craziest chat show; and meets the peanut that went to the moon.


Slim Gaillard cooks dinner for his old friend Dizzy Gillespie. They discuss the English language and their contributions to it — 'bebop' and 'Vout-o-reenee'.

They also recall working with Charlie Parker and conjure up the ghosts of the other great names of 52nd Street in its jazz heyday. And from Hollywood - memories of the days when the likes of Bob Hope and Marlene Dietrich were swapping items from Gaillard's Vout-o-reenee dictionary.


Slim Gaillard's story comes up to date. Today he lives a life of gentlemanly leisure in London pursuing an interest in golf, snooker and the occasional appearance at international jazz festivals.

From the fireside in his club he surveys his film career, looking back on roles in Roots, Absolute Beginners and Planet of the Apes. He introduces us to his family - in particular, his daughter who married Marvin Gaye. He goes down to the station early in the morning to see the little puffa-billys all in a row and reveals all about the girl in the testcard.