A great day in jazz history

A great day in jazz history
Reviewer: mattcem
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Ellington at the White House 1969:
334 pages
First edition
January 01, 2014
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

The story of April 29, 1969, the night President Nixon awarded the Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington — the first time in U.S. history anyone in jazz had been so honored.

I love jazz, and am a big fan of Duke Ellington, so I was very lucky to win this book in the Goodreads First Reads giveaway. Nixon and Ellington seem an unlikely combination, but this book shows how diplomatic the latter was; he really was friends with everyone. Edward Allan Faine did his research for sure, and every detail you can think of is included at least once somewhere in the book. As a result, there are several appendices and notes, though of much more interest are the photographs from the big event. Perhaps the book could have been “Jazz at the White House,” since all events remotely jazz-related up to April 29, 1969 are covered to some extent, though this one seems to have been not only the biggest and best quality, but also the most important socially.

The Medal of Freedom was not just a political move on Nixon’s part; many – and not just in the jazz community – knew it was long-overdue. The best parts, in my opinion, were the descriptions of the concert itself and the jam session, which read like extended liner notes. I would have loved to have been there, for the music alone, but Faine’s text gives a good sense not just of the performances but also some background of the compositions and the non-Ellington writers involved. Any kind of personal reaction from one of the attendants, whether during, before or after the main ceremony, was insightful and often amusing. Much detail is given on Willis Conover’s role in the event. The man with the famous voice determined and presented much of the musical program, and also widely promoted it on air for the following five years.

There have been a lot of great jazz performances in Washington since then, even in the past few years alone, but this was a special one, in an important era in the United States. Thanks to Edward Allan Faine for illustrating a great day in jazz history.