Diz Disley

Canadian-born British guitarist and Django Rheinhart afficionado Diz Disley, my longtime friend and a wonderful character, passed away March 22, 2010, at the age of 79. He had suffered in the last few years from a weak heart, and had been put in hospital recently needing care for that and incipient dementia.

Diz was one of a kind. I met him in Florida when he came to Tampa to play a gig that dematerialized at The University of South Florida, leaving him adrift until money could arrive to get him home to the UK. I met him at the folk club that had brought him to the states, sang with him and became his friend, offering him a place to stay at my off-campus apartment. He accepted, and we became fast friends.

He took the longest baths I’d ever known a human to take. I thought he’d died in the tub the first time I experienced one of those baths, but he called from behind the door, “It’s okay, old girl, I keep adding hot water!” I swear, he once spent 5 hours in the bath!

Diz would play the blues with me at the infamous Wild Boar Tavern near the university, a place which was often visited by Jack Kerouac. Diz (and Kerouac) loved my singing, and it was Diz who said to me in that, my senior year at USF, “Come to England, old girl! It may be rubbish but, by jingo, it’s British rubbish!” Having been there already briefly in 1966 following a tour for the USO with my college theatre troupe, I decided it was the best place for me during those unsettled days.

And so, in the midst of post-graduate angst, leaving a country torn by the Vietnam war, I moved to England in 1968, and stayed with Diz in Battersea until I could find my own place. Together we wreaked revenge on the promoter who had adandoned him in Florida. Then Diz took me on the rounds of the folk clubs on his gigs. He was hiding out from Her Majesty’s tax men in the folk music world, while they looked for him on the jazz pages of The Melody Maker.

Diz performed funny songs like “Rex, the Piddling Pup”, “With ’er ’ead Tucked Underneath ’er Arm” and other silly George Formby tunes, to the delight of those folk club audiences. But Diz wowed people with amazing Django pieces too, playing swing tunes effortlessly and with great style. He was a force to be reckoned with. It’s no surprise that Paul Simon, who had spent a year or so in London in the mid-sixties, wrote about Diz in a song on his first hit album. The song is “A Simple Desultory Philippic”, in which Paul writes, “I’ve been Walt Disneyed, Diz Disleyed, Rolling Stoned and Beatled til I’m blind...” It’s the same album on which Paul recorded (and brought to international prominence) Davey Graham’s perennial pickers’ anthem, “Anji.”

With Diz backing me, I sang all over London and the little towns where he had gigs. He promoted me in jazz clubs, too. When I moved into my own flat with friends, he and I remained close, and when I started recording with Davey Graham, Diz showed up at the session for Decca, although he didn’t play on the album, “The Holly Kaleidoscope.”

After I married Davey, Diz and I would see each other at festivals, and I was there at the Ninth Annual Cambridge Folk Festival in 1973 when he debuted the trio that would save Stephane Grappelli’s career and keep that exquisitely talented gypsy fiddler on the scene for 20 more years. It was Diz’s dream come true.

When I moved back to the states, I saw Grappelli and the Diz Disley Trio advertised on many international stages, but never got to attend, since I was a single mom and working. I called him in the nineties, and kept up with him during the early 2000s, always expecting to get to see him. But his health declined, and now he’s gone, never having received the Macaferry guitar he so craved. In the end, he could no longer play at all.

I will miss Diz. There’s a benefit concert for him in the UK on April 10, and I wish I could be there. Learn more about it, and maybe contribute, at Dave Swarbrick’s website.

Diz was my friend and my dear platonic companion through the early days of my new life in England. Because of him, I began to believe that I could indeed play the guitar. From Diz, I learned that music keeps you young. He opened many doors for me in the music scene, and then I married Davey, and the adventure continued.

Character, madman, talented visual artist, brilliant guitarist, Diz Disley is gone now. But oh, if you want a treat, check out the many recordings he did with Stephane, and hear what a lifetime of learning Django’s licks won him...his heart’s desire.

Farewell, Diz my dear. It was good to know you. You changed my life. For the better.

Olympia, Washington, March 23, 2010