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Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

Carl L. Hager By

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To get into heaven, don't snap for a seven
Live clean, don't have no fault
Oh, I take the gospel, whenever it's possible
But with a grain of salt

—"It Ain't Necessarily So," from Porgy & Bess
by George and Ira Gershwin

Edward Kennedy Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House, where he received the first Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by the newly inaugurated chief resident. Although Duke Ellington was a widely celebrated bandleader, and already recognized as among the greatest composers in American history, when the original Medal of Freedom was conceived by Harry Truman in 1945, the intention had been that certain U.S. cabinet secretaries could use it for recognizing outstanding civilian contribution to the war effort. It wouldn't be until 1963 that the scope of the award expanded.

But Harry S. Truman was indeed a big music fan, and later invited Ellington to the White House. During his visit on September 29th, 1950, Duke gave the president a manuscript copy of the score to his first major extended composition, Harlem, which had recently been commissioned by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Per the syllabus for the New York Philharmonic's Take Note educational program, on that occasion Ellington "wrote to the President that the proceeds of Harlem would be used 'to help fight for your civil rights program—to stamp out segregation, discrimination, bigotry, and a variety of other intolerances in our own American society.'" A year and a half after becoming president when Franklin Roosevelt died in office, Truman, a Missouri-born member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had formed the President's Committee on Civil Rights, the most pro-active civil rights step yet taken by a modern president. Later, on July 26, 1948, further risking his already unlikely chance of being re-elected in the upcoming presidential election, he had signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the federal work force and in the armed forces, thus initiating the beginning of desegregation. Edward Kennedy Ellington and Harry Truman were mutual fans.

To the amazement of many, so were he and Richard M. Nixon. On April 29th, 1969, the 100th day of Nixon's first term in office, Ellington received acknowledgement at last for his unparalleled activities as a worldwide musical ambassador. Similar in some ways to Bing Crosby's movie musicals that contributed so greatly to helping reinvigorate a postwar nation, his performances around the globe with the Duke Ellington Orchestra had helped re-establish America as the leading exporter of the music this world can never get enough of. His sophisticated jazz, swinging sense of style, and profound humanity got people from Fargo to Moscow up on their feet and dancing.

In The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) Penny M. Von Eschen reveals that two years later, Duke Ellington's 26-city tour of the USSR in Sept./Oct. 1971 was accorded legendary status at the U.S. State Department, for its significant role in helping to thaw relations between the two Cold War-embattled nations. "The political context," she writes, "was critical: Ellington's trip followed the announcement of Nixon's impending visit to the Soviet Union." The Russian jazz fans had seen visits from Benny Goodman in 1962 and Earl Hines in 1966, but no one since. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's misguided economic policies had made food increasingly difficult to come by, but they were momentarily forgiven by the 126,000 ecstatic jazz fans who paid as much as $50 ($283 in today's dollars) for a scalped ticket to see the legendary jazz icon and his orchestra. "For some Soviet fans it was [as] if modernity itself had walked in the door with Ellington," writes Von Eschen, who then quotes Ellington's close friend and noted jazz critic (but no fan of Nixon's), Leonard Feather, who characterized the 1971 tour as "the greatest coup in the history of musical diplomacy."


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