Actually, Nixon employed an avid jazz enthusiast in the person of Leonard Garment. A saxophonist in a 1940’s Woody Herman band, Garment found financial reward and political renown, and notoriety to some extent, as Nixon’s White House Counsel. A few years ago, Garment’s artistic side got the best of him when the law firm that employed him expressed serious displeasure, to say the least, when, during his tenure there, Garment released his autobiography, Crazy Rhythm. Garment didn’t forget his years as an itinerant saxophonist with Herman, and he is instrumental for setting in motion the release of Duke Ellington: 1969 All-Star White House Tribute. Even though Willis Conover organized the evening to celebrate Ellington’s 70th birthday, where Ellington received the Medal of Freedom, Garment remembered the event and encouraged saxophonist Bill Kirchner to find a label to release this never-before-heard performance. Blue Note has done just that.
Conover assembled a who’s who of jazz musicians to participate in the event, and the Blue Note CD containing 28 tracks of Ellington compositions is notable because they are performed by artists not normally associated with Ellington, such as Dave Brubeck or Jim Hall. As a result, the listener gets the best of both worlds: yet another collectible recording of Ellington tunes, but also a mix-and-match combination of musicians who add their personal styles to the music. Indeed, what’s impressive about the recording is the unmistakable stamp that the musicians put on the event.
For, unmistakably, it’s Paul Desmond soloing on "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore," his alto sax’s sinewy lines floating over the band’s arrangement in, actually, an uncommon setting for him, Desmond being better known for his work with small groups. J.J. Johnson’s right-on attack as he hits the notes and the way he holds them out on "Satin Doll" remind us of his technical mastery that identified his style, even up to his last recordings. And Urbie Green’s solo on "I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good" makes us wonder why he didn’t become one of the incontestable jazz legends, the mere mention of whose name inspires a hushed awe. For, whenever he played, Green was nothing less than a perfectionist with an instantly recognizable beautiful tone.
Clark Terry’s dialog with Bill Berry on "Squeeze Me" is one of the highlights of the CD. Even though many of us, including I, have heard C.T. perform that tune within the past decade or two, the energy of his White House performance, including the overbrimming wit inherent in his brassy voice, serves as a reminder of his natural ability to win over an audience. Joe Williams’ powerful interpretations of "Heritage" and "Come Sunday" in the spiritual portion of the concert are short but sweet: Each tune is just over two minutes in length. But his exacting articulation and force--the precise and clipped-off "Lord" at the start of "Come Sunday" after the dramatic drum roll--command attention from the first note.
The perfect ending to the evening is Ellington’s original composition to the First Lady, "Pat," which undoubtedly made him a hit with the President, who--say what you want about him--was devoted to his wife. Played as a haunting solo with contained suspense and suspension of harmonic resolution until the very last note, "Pat" turns out to be more of a short tone poem than a ballad, its rich colors shifting kaleidoscopically through the internal lines of the chords.
Even though the Pulitzer Prize committee wasn’t advanced or open-minded enough to grant the award to Ellington, one of this century’s greatest composers, at least Presidents and kings appreciated Ellington’s genius. And now, one of those events when a President celebrated that royalty of music is available musically for the first time.