Forty-nine years ago this evening at the White House in Washington, DC, the president of the United States hosted a party honoring Duke Ellington on his 70th birthday and presenting him with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. The United States Information Agency produced a short film about the occasion. The soundtrack of the film is a sort of collage incorporating bits of the evening’s music. The narrator is Willis Conover of the Voice Of America, who played an essential role in putting the evening together.
It was my good fortune to be invited to the Ellington party, along with fellow writers Leonard Feather and Dan Morgenstern. I later contributed liner notes to the Blue Note album containing music played by an all-star tribute band that serenaded Ellington with many of his compositions. In the band were trumpeters Bill Berry and Clark Terry; trombonists Urbie Green and J.J. Johnson; saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan; and the rhythm section of pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Louie Bellson. The singers were Joe Williams and Mary Mayo. From the liner notes:
Sitting behind Ellington, I heard him remark to Cab Calloway as Hinton appeared, “Look, there’s your bass player.“ Hinton hadn’t been in Calloway’s band in twenty years. When Desmond did a perfect Johnny Hodges impression during “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” Ellington sat bolt upright and looked astonished, a reaction that pleased Desmond when I described it. Hank Jones, Billy Taylor and Dave Brubeck played beautifully, but the hands-down winner in the piano category was the 65-year-old Earl “Fathah” Hines, who in two daring minutes of “Perdido” tapped the essence of jazz. Ellington stood up and blew him kisses. Later, Billy Eckstine, who sang with Hines’s band before he had his own, walked up to his old boss and gave him an accolade: “You dirty old man.”
The Nixons retired after the ceremony, but the party, which included dancing, lasted until nearly 3 a.m. No one who was at the White House that night is likely to forget it.