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.
Thanks for posting this very special video. Can you imagine the current president playing the piano with such a mighty touch like Mr. Nixon? What an exquisite honor roll of guests. Did BG join the jam session too? Just wondering. It was clear that Dizzy wasn’t only coming by to say hello. It’s a pity that the sound of this clip was so distorted.
Duke’s speech was touching, and it was a wonderful moment when he mentioned his great musical companion for so many years, Billy Strayhorn. Man, how we would need a Duke Ellington in these days of homophobia, lust for war, and for the attempts to reintroduce all kinds of segregation around the globe.
A little anecdote, just for a good laugh despite the stern times we’re facing today:
“Why four kisses, Duke?”, Nixon asked. “One for each cheek.”, tricky Duke replied. 😉
Doug Ramsey says
Leonard Garment, special counsel to President Nixon, was a clarinetist and tenor player who once worked with Woody Herman. He wrote about the Goodman matter in his book Crazy Rhythm: “Years would pass before Benny Goodman forgave me for not instructing him to bring his clarinet, but if he played, how could I?”
Orsolya S. says
It would’ve been neat to be a fly on the wall at this event for Duke Ellington at The White House. Thanks for posting it.
Peter Straub says
Thanks, Doug. This was really charming. Even a couple of moments of Desmond being Desmond, always very welcome.
Rob D says
Simply wonderful. I wonder if President Nixon was a jazz fan? He certainly seems to be thrilled to be on stage with all those greats of the genre. I’m glad Ellington got this moment in the sun. No one deserved it more. Doug, I would love to hear some more stories about this evening.
Doug Ramsey says
You’ll find a few in my liner notes for the Blue Note album of the evening’s music
Ted O'Reilly says
As Canada is a foreign country, the Voice Of America made available for Toronto broadcast a complete set of reel-to-reel tapes of the evening, totaling 1:37:28. They sit proudly on my shelf to this day.
Speaking of “this day”, today (April 25) is the 101st anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth…