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Presidents Day: Nixon honors Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington at the White House
Duke Ellington at the White House

Presidents Day is nearly upon us. Truth be told, I typically spend nary a moment over the long weekend considering any of the nation’s Chief Executives, past or present. That said, it’s worth noting that Richard Nixon did a fine thing for jazz 45 years ago.
As someone who grew up in the ‘70s, Nixon played a pivotal role in shaping my political consciousness. The California native presided over (and greatly and often cynically contributed) to a nation torn by strife. His policies and actions rested primarily on paranoia and hate and those emotions accounted for both his fast rise and ignominious fall. Vietnam, Watergate, “Seasons in the Sun” – those years saw some tough times.
Nixon did, however, appreciate music. He learned piano in his youth and began staging his ‘60s political comeback with a performance appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
Once in the White House, Nixon threw on April 29, 1969, that celebrated building’s most famous evening of jazz, a 70th birthday tribute to Duke Ellington. Here’s how describes the event.

Willis Conover of the Voice of America organized the event at which President Richard Nixon awarded Ellington with the Medal of Freedom. But the main course of the evening was the music of the Duke. With Ellington at the keyboard, the evening featured a who's who of the best of jazz: pianists Billy Taylor, Hank Jones and Dave Brubeck; alto and baritone saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan; trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie; and vocalist Joe Williams. They pay homage to Ellington through a series of medleys that include "Take the ‘A’ Train," "Satin Doll" and "In a Sentimental Mood." Duke Ellington concludes the star-studded celebration with a moving and impressionistic piece dedicated to Nixon's wife, entitled "Pat." It ends a beautiful evening where art and politics come together.

Nixon himself made a gracious speech that night.

To all of our guests here this evening, I think you would be interested to know that many years ago, the father of our guest of honor, in this very room, serving as one of the butlers in this White House, helped to serve state dinners.
Tonight, in honoring his son, I was trying to think of something that would be appropriate, something that has not been more adequately said, I think very well, by the music that we have heard.
We have tried to convey our affection for Duke Ellington through that music, and later on in the East Room, when I will make the first presentation in this administration of the Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington, I will have more to say in more extended remarks about what this day means to us and what it means to this House.
But in this room, at this time, for these special guests, it occurred to me that the most appropriate thing for me to say would be this: I, and many others here, have been guests at state dinners. I have been here when an emperor has been toasted. I have been here when we have raised our glasses to a king, to a queen, to presidents, and to prime ministers.
But in studying the history of all of the great dinners held in this room, never before has a Duke been toasted.

A recording was made that night but when CBS sought permissions from the players a few years later guitar great Jim Hall turned them down. Seems by then he was so angry at Nixon for all the ills the administration had inflicted on the country that the last thing Hall wanted to do was be associated with it. The album was finally issued in 2002.

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