Jazz Institute of Chicago

1969 All-Star White House Tribute to Duke Ellington

1969 All-star White House tribute to Duke Ellington
Blue Note, 7243 35249 2 0.
By Terry Ripmaster

Some readers know I’ve been working on Willis Conover’s biography for four years. There came a time last year when Conover’s Voice of America jazz programs, 37,000 of them, arrived at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I was thrilled and as they were unpacked and shelved, my eyes were popping out.

There were the VOA tapes for the April 29, 1969, White House tribute to Ellington. With the assistance of Leonard Garment, once a Nixon aide and a jazz musician, the White House Ellington tapes came to be produced into this CD.

Willis Conover gathered together, with Duke Ellington, the following musicians: Clark Terry, Bill Berry, Urbie Green and J.J. Johnson, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Milt Hinton, Mary Mayo, and Louie Bellson.

There were one hundred guests, many of them Ellington’s old musical pals: Willie “the Lion” Smith, George Wein, Otto Preminger, for whom Ellington scored the film Anatomy of a Murder, Gunther Schuller, Richard Rogers, Harold Arlen, Cab Calloway, Dr. Billy Taylor, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, and many political figures, including Vice President Agnew.

President Nixon presented the Medal of Freedom to Ellington and played happy birthday on the piano, joking about what key to play it in. Nixon reminded the audience that Duke’s father was once a servant in the White House who had to use the back door.

Ellington responded with a short commentary about music, love, and freedom, quoting from his long-time friend and collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. Then the musical night began. It would be impossible to get everything on one CD, because it went on until 2:45 a.m. But here’s what’s on the CD and all of it is great and well recorded.

Medley 1 includes "I Got it Bad," "Chelsea Bridge," with a wonderful solo by Desmond, "Satin Doll," with J.J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan swinging on "Sophisticated Lady" and "Just Squeeze Me."

Medley 2 begins with "Drop Me Off in Harlem" with Billy Taylor, Milt Hinton. and Louie Bellson. They also play "All Too Soon" and "It Don’t Mean A Thing." Earl Hines plays on "Perdido" and Joe Williams sings on "Come Sunday" and "Heritage."

The CD ends with Ellington playing "Pat," dedicated to Mrs. Nixon. During the jazz session after the main musical menu, Lou Rawls sang, Leonard Feather and Marian McPartland traded licks on the piano, and Garment, once a tenor sax man with Woody Herman, joined in with J.J. Johnson and Dizzy Gillespie on a tune or two.

Conover tells an interesting story about escorting Willie “the Lion” Smith to a limo outside of the White House around three in the morning. Willie asked Conover, “Any good all-night clubs open we can go to?”

I am assisting Leonard Garment in locating the tapes of that jazz session, which he hopes to produce as a follow-up to this White House Ellington CD.

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