Most of the obituaries of Leonard Garment mention his background as a jazz musician but not the key role he played in arranging White House honors for Duke Ellington. The former White House adviser died July 13 at the age of 89. Garment’s clarinet and tenor saxophone skills helped pay his way through college and law school. His gigs included a stint in Woody Herman’s saxophone section, but he opted for a career in law and public service. For a full review of Garment’s career, see his New York Times obituary.
Before Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, he and Garment were partners in a Washington, DC, law firm. After Nixon’s election, Garment served in the White House as a special consultant on, among other matters, civil rights and the arts. His most visible role was defending Nixon in the Watergate scandal that erupted in 1972 and in the impeachment process that led to the president’s resignation. Noted for his integrity, Garment convinced Nixon not to destroy the oval office tapes that proved damning in the Senate Watergate hearings and investigation. Ultimately, he played a key role in persuading the president that he must resign.
Early in Nixon’s term, Willis Conover of the Voice of America suggested that the president throw Ellington a 70th birthday party at the White House. Garment and fellow Nixon adviser Charles McWhorter got the president’s approval. Conover assembled an all-star tribute band: Bill Berry and Clark Terry, trumpets; Urbie Green and J.J. Johnson, trombones; Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, saxophones; Hank Jones, piano; Jim Hall, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; and Louie Bellson, drums; Joe Williams and Mary Mayo, vocals. Dave Brubeck, Earl Hines, Willie the Lion Smith and Billy Taylor also played. Conover MCed the concert that followed Nixon’s presentation to Ellington of the National Medal of Freedom. The President then accompanied the birthday singalong. The US Information Agency, when there still was a USIA, filmed the event. This clip from an unnamed documentary is all that I have been able to turn up.
Following the concert, the East Room was cleared of chairs. Mr. and Mrs. Nixon retired but invited everyone to stay and enjoy themselves, which many did until 2:45 a.m. A jam session developed. Some of it is described in my notes for the CD of the music released 33 years later, including Garment’s part in it.
During the session, all of the pianists from the concert reappeared. Marian McPartland, Leonard Feather and George Wein also played the East Room Steinway. McPartland joined the Lion in a duet. Billy Eckstine, Joe Wiliams and Lou Rawls traded blues choruses. Leonard Garment, once a tenor saxophonist with Woody Herman, found himself jamming on clarinet with Mulligan, J.J. Johnson, Urbie Green and Dizzy Gillespie. In his book Crazy Rhythm, he wrote,
Years would pass before Benny Goodman would forgive me for not instructing him to bring his horn, but if he played, how could I?
Most of the all-stars sat in, and so did the Navy musicians. At one point, the rhythm section was made up of Marines, looking in their scarlet tunics like a contingent of Canadian Mounties.
There has been nothing like it at the White house—or anywhere else—since.
In his last two decades, Garment devoted much of his time and energy to establishment of the National Museum of Jazz in Harlem. He was its chairman until 2005.