Ellington at the White House

3 August 2002

Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday was celebrated with a patriotic royal flair on April 29, 1969. Richard Nixon’s White House gathering of jazz, cultural and political luminaries joined to wave bright flags of appreciation for America’s most significant composer and bandleader — Edward Kennedy Ellington, a man beyond category.

That is the good news: Nixon doing the right thing for the Duke. The bad news is that Ellington’s 40th, 50th and 60th birthdays were not celebrated similarly, as they should have been.

Better late than never . . . and the best news of all for us who look back nostalgically, or with steadfast veneration at the Duke’s unrivaled musical achievement, is that the White House birthday party was recorded. And brilliantly, at that!

BLUE NOTE Records has set an August ’02 release date for its Duke Ellington: 1969 All-Star White House Tribute. The album is a stunning addition of significant material for any fan of Ellingtonia. It is, no less, an engaging album, pure and simple — a session that stands on its own regardless of the special occasion at stake. The more than seventy-five minutes of music performed are devoted solely to Ellington compositions, once more reminding us how easy it is to sink into almost any part of that generous musical universe … how easy and how rewarding, as well.

Highlights abound, none more enrapturing than trumpeter/flugelhorn master Clark Terry’s acrobatic reading of “Just Squeeze Me.” Terry, to this day, has a unique ability to emerge from any collection of jazz “all stars” by the sheer beguiling force of his extroverted musical personality — a charm created in part by the unabashed bravura of his lyrical attack, in part by a tone without equal. You recognize Clark Terry from his first note. You become his unwitting musical companion by the second or third bar of any solo he takes. So it was at the White House in April, 1969.

Here is a partial list of the players assembled to entertain Duke and his regal party: Earl Hines, Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor, piano; Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, saxophones; Urbie Green and J. J. Johnson, trombone; Terry and Bill Berry, trumpet; Jim Hall, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Louie Bellson, drums; and Joe Williams and Mary Mayo, vocals. Only Mayo was out of place, although one might wonder about the exclusion of any number of musicians — Roy Eldridge, Sonny Rollins, and Ella Fitzgerald come immediately to mind — from the eclectic line up of performers.

But then no party can include everyone and what this disc proves is how enduring, and profound, the Ellington songbook genuinely is. Anyone who thinks that we do not need to be reminded of that fact has not been paying attention to the unmusical hootings of our deeply unlyrical contemporary culture.

An early delight of this session is Paul Desmond’s lithe sojourn across “Chelsea Bridge.” Gerry Mulligan’s quirky and appealing reworking of the sublime “Prelude to a Kiss” surely must have brought Ellington out of his chair, just as Earl Hines’ romping take on “Perdido” darts and dives away from any seated position.

One should be thankful that this unique celebration of a unique life has been found for the ages to enjoy. Not only are there gems galore to rouse admiration and revived attention; a sense of professional musical camaraderie is clearly at work throughout the evening’s festivities …a spirit of joy and fellow-feeling companionship. Listening to this beautifully recorded disc we chalk one up for Nixon, who needs a few scratches on the positive side of the ledger. We chalk one up now, too, for Blue Note. I’m sure that, for many listeners, this all star tribute to the Tutto de Tutti Cappi of America’s jazz royalty will come as a bit of a surprise.

How could such a glorious body of music slumber in obscurity so long? How delightful it is (nonetheless) to join, in virtual celebratory conspiracy, the happy throng enthralled that night: Willie “The Lion” Smith, Harry Carney, Richard Rodgers, Otto Preminger, Harold Arlen, Mahalia Jackson, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Marianne McPartland, Willis Conover, Bayard Rustin, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and others of the inner Washington circle.

A glorious evening of homage and music is here capped just right. Duke sat down at the keyboard and improvised a lovely three-minute solo meditation on several fragments from his songbook. In the spirit of conviviality that marked the occasion, he dubbed that once and only performance “Pat,” in honor to Mrs. Nixon. Ironies prevail. We are there now, still, with the happy few.