[Dixielandjazz] New Ellington Album

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet@earthlink.net
Sun, 25 Aug 2002 12:40:24 -0400

For all the Ellington Fans on the DJML

Steve Barbone

August 25, 2002 WASHINGHTON DC

A New Revelation From the Nixon White House


On Tuesday, a tape that contains startling new revelations about the
early days of Richard Nixon's White House will be released.

Sorry, folks, it's not what you think.

The release is an album from Blue Note Records, "Duke Ellington 1969:
All-Star White House Tribute." It was recorded at a black-tie dinner and
jazz concert given in the White House by President Nixon on April 29,
1969, to celebrate Ellington's 70th birthday and award him the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it has never been made available.

The album is 76 minutes of superb jazz designed and delivered by masters
of the art form: Louie Bellson, drums; Clark Terry and Bill Berry,
trumpets and fluegelhorns; Paul Desmond, alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan,
baritone sax; J. J. Johnson and Urbie Green, trombones; Jim Hall,
guitar; Milt Hilton, bass. Ellington, Earl (Fatha) Hines, Billy Taylor,
Dave Brubeck and Hank Jones played piano, and vocals were by Joe
Williams and Mary Mayo.

The music is every bit as good as the lineup. But the release date is
some 33 years late. Therein lies a story of mid-20th century America and
of two individuals whose lives told much of that story: Ellington and
Willis Conover, who was obscure in this country but famous in the rest
of the world for his jazz program on Voice of America, which ran for 40
years until he died in 1996.

Conover did his program six nights a week, exercising his impeccable
musical taste and his unmistakable voice. Both he and the broadcasts
were apolitical. Yet during the cold war, the programs attracted
millions of listeners in the Soviet bloc to the inherently subversive,
freedom-celebrating sounds of jazz, and Conover knew that the programs
moved his listeners in more than the strictly musical sense. Because
Voice of America was prohibited by law from broadcasting within the
United States, Conover and his influence were almost unknown at home.

Around the time of Nixon's first inauguration, in 1969, Conover hatched
the idea for the Ellington party. I was then a special consultant to the
president, and Conover conveyed it to me through Charles McWhorter, who
had been an aide to Nixon when he was vice president. I recommended the
concept to the White House. Nixon agreed, adding the idea of the Medal
of Freedom.

Conover then took charge of the proceedings. He recruited the musicians,
selected the program and handled the myriad details. I, having joined
the White House staff, was happy to be a sometime assistant to the

In 1965, just a few years before the White House party, Ellington had
been recommended for a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American
music. The Pulitzer board turned him down, and the snub created a brief
scandal among New York's cultural elites. Ellington, then 65, remarked:
"Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me too famous too young."

Now, on the evening of the party, here was Ellington in the White House,
where his father had once been a butler, receiving from Nixon, of all
people, the highest award the country could bestow on a civilian. More,
he was receiving the award in the company of a remarkable gathering of
American artists, including many who had created the art of jazz. Their
collective presence was a fitting response to the Pulitzer pettiness.
Ralph Ellison understood the significance of these contrasts. Two days
before the party, he wrote in The Washington Star, "That which our
institutions dedicated to the recognition of artistic achievement have
been too prejudiced, negligent or concerned with European models and
styles to do is finally being done by presidents."

The evening had its pleasures and incongruities, many of them collected
in Doug Ramsey's excellent booklet notes for the Blue Note release. As
the guests arrived, Vice President Spiro Agnew sat at the piano in the
reception hall and decorously played "In a Sentimental Mood" and
"Sophisticated Lady." During the reception, Gerry Mulligan came upon a
strolling trio of United States Navy musicians playing "Honeysuckle
Rose," unpacked his baritone sax and started a jam session in the

After dinner, Nixon awarded Ellington the Medal of Freedom, with the
words "In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands
higher than the Duke." Ellington leaned forward and delivered his
traditional two kisses on each cheek to Nixon; the president, visibly
startled, grinned sheepishly. Then came the excitement of the concert,
after which Ellington brought the gathering to a breathless silence
while he improvised a gentle piece dedicated to Pat Nixon.

After the chairs were cleared, a jam session began. Virtually every
musician in the house took part. Ellington played duets with all comers,
including the pianist Marian McPartland, the jazz producer George Wein
and Willie (The Lion) Smith, Ellington's old tutor in stride piano. The
jazz critics Dan Morgenstern, Leonard Feather, Whitney Balliett and Doug
Ramsey were there, strolling in professional heaven.

Nixon asked me to bring Earl Hines to join him in the family quarters,
where they exchanged reminiscences about the benefits of childhood piano
lessons. It was by memorizing piano pieces, Nixon said, that he had
developed the skill of speaking without notes. Shortly before 3 a.m.,
someone noticed Paul Desmond and Urbie Green solicitously pouring each
other into a cab outside the White House. Everything worked that night,
and the Ellington presence gave the evening its magic.

A few months after the dinner, in July 1969, Conover and I traveled
together to the Soviet Union as part of the American delegation to the
Moscow Film Festival. Conover took along a short documentary about the
concert; the film had been hastily assembled by a private contractor.
Though something of a mess, it featured enough Ellington to play to
standing-room-only fans of Ellington, Conover and American jazz. I had
my first glimpse of the worldwide popularity of all three.

After Moscow, Conover and I intermittently turned our attention to
getting the audio recording of the Ellington concert released at home.
Frank Stanton, the president of CBS and chairman of the United States
Information Agency, offered to produce the recording through Columbia
Records; all profits would have gone to a fund to have been established
for aged and indigent musicians, of whom there were more than a few.
Conover set out on the herculean task of getting the consent required
from every participant in the concert.

There was one holdout  the guitarist Jim Hall, a gentle and witty man
who, life being what it is, was a family friend. My brother Charlie had
been best man at his wedding. Jim, a serious, steadfastly determined
opponent of the Vietnam War, would not consent to anything that would
bring credit to Nixon. Thus, our efforts ended for the indefinite

Conover and I also met from time to time to plot how to distribute the
film of the Ellington concert. Here the obstacle was even greater than
the problem of obtaining consents: we simply could not find the film.
Over the years, we swept the White House, the United States Information
Agency, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and every other
hiding place we could think of. People cooperated with our effort, but
all we could find were bits of film that were used in the abbreviated
documentary. I sometimes daydreamed that the original reels were stuffed
in a trash bag in some obscure closet of the building in which the maker
of the documentary had committed his butchery. The joy of the search
kept us going for a long time.

When Willis Conover died, I found someone admirably suited to carry on
his work: Bill Kirchner, a jazz saxophonist, composer and writer. In
1998, we began to search for a commercial-quality copy of the original
audio recording of the Ellington concert. We finally found one, neatly
tucked away in the National Archives, and played it for Bruce Lundvall,
the president of Blue Note, who agreed to produce the recording 
subject, of course, to getting those consents.

After some two years of letters, phone calls and personal conferences
with musicians, family members and estate representatives, the task was
accomplished. Jim Hall, for the benefit of his fellow surviving
musicians and of music history, gave his consent, though he made clear
that this was not to be taken as a sign of any diminution in his dislike
of Nixon.

The search was worth undertaking for the sake of the music, of course.
The release also preserves a moment that embodied the central role of
jazz in this country's life and relationship to the world. Finally, it
brought together and illuminated the lives of two authentic American

Ellington was an incomparable artist; he also seemed impervious to
slights and refused to use his art or his fame for any but the most
inclusive, constructive ends. Conover did as much as anyone to bring
American jazz, as well as the American musicians who played it, to the
rest of the world. He was required by law to be "invisible" in his own
country, but he never appeared bothered by the absence of honor and fame
at home.

The two, between them, played roles in some of the largest events of the
20th century, including the civil rights movement and the cold war. Each
man responded to the bitterness and partisanship of such events with an
unfailing generosity of spirit.

I'd like to think that jazz had something to do with it.

Leonard Garment, a lawyer, is the chairman of the Jazz Museum in Harlem
and the author of ``Crazy Rhythm,'' a memoir.