Friday, December 15, 2017

Jazz and JFK by Steven Harris - Part 1

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

In celebration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth centennial, Steven penned a 10,000 word essay on the late President of the United States and his relationship to Jazz and has kindly consented to allow JazzProfiles to publish it on these pages in five, consecutive parts.

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jazz  and JFK – in celebration of the 2017 Kennedy birth centennial:
An intriguing five–part feature on the President's relation to the music, the artists and their heartfelt reflections––then and now.

By STEVEN D. HARRIS © 2013, 2017.

“It seems almost spooky that September Song was John F. Kennedy's favorite tune, yet it is confirmed as true. The 1938 ballad was the creation of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson––a story song with a bittersweet theme of a man in mid–age who contemplates his own mortality. Jack himself, we know, would never reach––as Sinatra so eloquently sang it––the September of his years, but was fated a count of 46. The man who captured the American imagination would be a source of imitation––from intellect and etiquette, to fashion, looks and class. (Gerry Mulligan seemed to emulate the man in a style sense, according to one critic. The month that Jeru’s Concert Band debuted in September 1960, he was seen sporting “a bop version of a Senator Jack Kennedy haircut.”)

For folks over 60, chances are you still recall your exact whereabouts the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when the unfolding events in Dallas took precedence over every possible news story across the globe. Of the more than 190 million people in America, 75 million had heard the reports within a half–hour. That was at 1PM CST, the time JFK's life would cease. What follows in this timely centennial report (the data was originally compiled for the 50th anniversary of the President’s passing in November 2013, updated here) is a varying degree of components that tie the JFK era with a gathering of jazz encounters, some that occurred before he secured high office. It covers more than 50 musicians and singers, taken from historical accounts at the key time, to current reflections which the writer collected at the semi centennial of his death. It also covers recorded jazz memorials to JFK.


Entertainment was the main force that played throughout the two main Kennedy inaugural bashes––part of a six-ceremony gala that the President and First Lady were scheduled to attend, January 19th & 20th, 1961. In the musical mix was pop, folk, symphony, opera, religious music and a healthy dose of jazz. The first night's pre–inaugural party was produced and hosted by Francis Sinatra (who had performed the Star–Spangled Banner for Jack at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in July). The black–tie affair of Jan.19 offered a diverse cast from stage and screen. From their hotels, Sinatra arranged to pick up his all–star entourage in school buses to make the short trip to the capital’s National Guard Armory. Frank later called his mass production “the most exciting assignment of my life.”

In the jazz arena were singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole. That connubial couple, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, were also rostered. So too was conductor Leonard Bernstein (premiering new music for the occasion) and the Basie band. The Count wrote in his assisted autobiography Good Morning Blues: “I can vouch for what was happening at the Armory: It was leaping, very definitely.” Bill also confirmed how his wife Katie “had been very active in the Kennedy campaign, so she probably would have been part of the big victory celebration even if the band had not been invited to play."

This gargantuan event, as Kennedy would relay in the customary sign-off thank you’s, caused two current Broadway shows to shut down for the night. After the swearing–in ceremonies.come morning, the new president re–tuxed and headed to the Statler–Hilton Hotel, where another D.C. ball awaited him. Nelson Riddle’s orchestra and the Woody Herman Herd alternated for dancers, playing continuously for some 8,000 privileged invitees. Al Hirt entertained that evening as well with his jovial New Orleans sound. In the years ahead, he would evoke the night again and again, telling how Kennedy went out of his way to shake hundreds of unfamiliar hands, in order to reach the stage and thank the trumpeter personally.


Al Hirt was watching TV at home in 1963 when a bulletin flashed in. "I drove down to my club," he later wrote in his memoirs, "which at that time of the day was empty...with remains from the previous night's revelry. I locked myself in, picked up my horn and played the blues...[It] seemed to allow me some release for the strong emotions I felt. After a time, I secured a black wreath, put it on my nightclub door and remained closed for business until after his funeral." (Note: Technically, Dan's Pier 600 belonged to Hirt's business manager. It closed in 1964 to reopen at year’s end under a new name and ownership: the Al Hirt club.)

Vince Guaraldi's trio was scheduled to play at the University of Pittsburgh, PA. Upon landing at the airport, the group was greeted by security agents and sent home. For singer Tony Bennett, the distress caused a reverse reaction to his long–term memory. Decades later, he struggled to pinpoint exactly where he was: "It affected me that much to where I couldn't remember what I was just felt like the Declaration of Independence had ended." John Clayton, the superlative bassist, writer and bandleader, was just eleven when the news from Dallas resonated thru his 6th grade hall that day. He remembered how the whole school went home early, adding, "I also saw the flag at half mast, maybe a first for noticing that."

Clayton's elder of the big bass, Howard Rumsey, was into his 14th year running the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach––a casual jazz spot already of legend, where sand and sandals were part of the decor. Though his memories had faded (Howard was 96 when we spoke), he did offer some insight. I inquired as to whether or not he shut down the club temporarily, as so many establishments did nationwide. "We did not close that week," he verified, "but I put a substitute group in there and took a week off, so that I could follow the [news updates] and burial––and to see how the nation was going to conduct itself. The question came to everybody: Who's going to take Kennedy's place, because he was so popular. That's what was on everybody's mind.” Howard answered affirmingly when I asked if he was a Kennedy fan himself, not expecting his quirky reply. “Yes,” Rumsey confirmed, “because he was the kind of guy that took his wife with him everywhere."

Gerald Wilson, who was 95 at the time of our interview, was also fuzzy on the details he encountered that week of national mourning. What he did recall was that "I was in Dallas after that time, a few years later. I was invited to conduct an orchestra there… A friend of mine showed me the spot where all of this happened." I asked Gerald how he perceived the era in retrospect. "Kennedy,” he offered, “had proved to be a man that was certainly going to do good things for the country. Things looked like they would be better if he was the president. I think he was a man that people in America liked. JFK, good guy." Gerald was more precise in pinpointing the facts five years later, when another Kennedy brother was felled in the same senseless manner––an event that affected him possibly even more in 1968. He elaborated on RFK this way: “I know where I was the night that happened. I was playing and conducting music for Eartha Kitt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. I had written this music for her, but I didn't even stay to the end of the engagement. I got on a plane to come back home."

Singer Joe Williams and his wife (who, coincidentally, was born on Nov. 22 *) were headed for New York’s Idyllwild Airport that day to pick up his back–up group, the Junior Mance Trio. They would all be performing that night in Detroit. When the early bulletins came on the car radio––this was before the President's death was confirmed––his wife's first inclination was to turn back. "Nobody's going to open a club now," she reasoned. Joe stopped to call the club owner and find out his plans. The owner took a chance, deciding to stay open. Joe sang his usual three sets on opening night to a mostly Canadian crowd, who had crossed over from Windsor, Ontario. By the third night, however, locals were showing up in droves––all seeking relief from the excruciating events. The social trauma of Nov. 22, as Joe later capped it, would "take the luster off" his wife's birthday forever.

[*Also born Nov. 22: pianist-singer-composer Hoagy Carmichael (1899–1981), reed player Ernie Caceres (1911–71), trombonist Jimmy Knepper (1927–2003) and pianist Craig Hundley (b. 1954), among other jazz personalities.]


When Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett were assigned for a joint effort in late August, 1962, the result was a White House “jazz first,” albeit off grounds. The one-hour set had been prepared as a Rose Garden lawn concert for local college interns. However, to accommodate the crowd, it was moved to the Sylvan Theatre of the Ellipse––a round field more commonly known as the President's Park South, just across from the White House. A superb recording from that day found its way to CD in May, 2013, released as Brubeck/Bennett: The White House Sessions–live 1962. Historic photos accompany the music and liner text. Hearing the tape 50 years later, Bennett was overjoyed: "I couldn't believe how spontaneous it all it was so well rehearsed." The two artists alternate in sets, starting with Dave’s Quartet. Tony then crafts out a half–dozen tunes with the Ralph Sharon Trio. For the too–brief finale, the Brubeck trio (Paul Desmond lays out) backs Bennett for eleven off the cuff minutes.

Due to its geographical spot (being outside the House gates), the Brubeck/Bennett date is more often passed up historically for its role as the first jazz happening by the White House. That designation belongs to a program arranged 12 weeks later: the more frequently cited event of Nov. 19––the first time jazz resonated inside the Executive Mansion, with a 90–minute program in the East Room. The Jazz Sextet of alto saxophonist Paul Winter (billed with a 19–year old classical pianist from Korea) played for a polite audience of ten–to–nineteen year–olds, all children of diplomats and government officials from various embassies in Washington. Paul remembered the young crowd as "warm and unpretentious." This was the fifth in a music series introduced and sponsored by Jacqueline Kennedy herself, called Concerts For Young People, By Young People. JFK had intended to take part, but was swamped with no less than eight meetings that day.

Jackie seemed genuinely excited, even if the group border lined on a hard bop style beyond her ears. "Simply wonderful," she expressed to Paul, adding, "There has never been anything like it here before." She gave the group "her cool blessing," UPI reported the next day. Another newspaper would headline “Jackie digs jazz!" in bold lettering. Shortly afterwards, in a half–hour ABC–TV special on the bossa nova craze, it was noted that Little Boat was Jackie’s favorite tune. She was even curious to know the origins of the coolly syncopated trend from Brazil. Jackie was so enthralled with the new sounds––and particularly Paul's latest release, Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova––that she said she'd been playing it "non–stop for two weeks." Record sales jumped when The Billboard reported how the First Lady "flipped" over it. The tape of this White House performance was finally released upon its golden anniversary in November, 2012. The 2CD set, with more previously unissued material from ‘63, is named after the group's theme song, Count Me In.

Paul Winter, just 23, had recently returned with his group from an extended cultural exchange tour of Latin America. The period covered February thru mid–July and, before it culminated, Paul wrote to the President on the progress and results. Jack expressed to one of his staffers that he found it all "very interesting." Paul explained: "The success of that tour brought the sextet to Jackie's attention." Paul always felt that because his group was equally integrated (three white members, the other three black), it secured his royal op at the White House. The week after JFK's burial, on Dec. 5, Paul entered the Columbia recording studios for his last of six albums with his seasoned sextet. (Added percussion was used on a few of the twelve titles, making it a septet). The results were titled Jazz Meets the Folk Song. It is hardly a coincidence that the 1963 album includes the folk favorite, We Shall Overcome. Paul included it as a jazz benediction. The distraught players would disband within days.

Of the quotes from more than 40 personalities covered herein, Mundell Lowe, who died on December 2, 2017 at the age of 95, deserves the anecdotal prize for his personal account––one that has never been documented at any time before. From 1953 on, JFK had a home away from home in New York. While in the area, Jack would stay at Manhattan's ***Carlyle Hotel on 5th Avenue, where he had an assigned penthouse duplex on the 34th floor. "All the big stars used to stay there," Mundell noted. Through the guitarist's personal chronicle, he produced this previously unknown tidbit for jazz history. He told the writer:

"Milt Hinton, the bass player, called me and said the President was in town and that he liked jazz. 'I want you, me, Tony Scott and Don Elliott to go up and play for him,' he said. There was some kind of little party going on upstairs in his private presidential suite. I'm not sure of the date, but 1961 sounds accurate. We decided it was best not to use a drummer, since we thought it should be quieter. Tony played clarinet [rather than sax] and Don played the vibes. We all arrived in this little room up there...and there was a rocking chair right in front of the bandstand.

"Pretty soon,” Mundell continues, “Kennedy came in and sat down with a guy on each side of him, so that nobody could disturb him. I don't remember if they were the FBI or the Secret Service, but they were plain clothes men protecting Kennedy. He sat there right in front of us for quite a while, listening. The President smiled and patted his foot and had a great time. He stayed there in that rocking chair facing us––and the guys would not let anybody get near him."

I asked Mundell to elaborate on the circumstances of November '63, when he joined in the nation's sorrow: "I think it was the same hour the news broke...I was in New York, leaving NBC studios, when I ran into Milt Hinton on the street––and he was in tears. I asked him what was wrong. He said: 'They just killed the only hope we ever had.' We [then] went down to a bar called Jim & Andy's and had a drink."

[***The jazz encounter at the Carlyle Hotel may have occurred when JFK was still a "president–elect." The writer researched into it to find that Kennedy spent at least three nights there between Jan. 4–18, 1961, just prior to his Jan. 20 inauguration. If this is the case, as Mundell notes, it was possibly FBI men rather than the Secret Service assigned to protect him.]

If the statement voiced by Miles Davis sounds like hyperbole, it was at least a fashionable take on his stance. "I like the Kennedy brothers," he told a reporter in 1962. "They're swinging people." In February, 1964, when the trumpeter appeared with his quintet at Philharmonic Hall in New York (for an NAACP benefit), he told England's Melody Maker that the concert was in memory of JFK. Some six months later, Miles would throw a party at his home for Robert Kennedy, who had announced his bid to run for senator of New York. Strangely, Miles admitted in his aided 1989 autobiography, he had no recollection of meeting his honored political guest. "People say he was there,” Miles guessed, “but if he was I don't remember..."

Miles' horn mentor––a fatherly force to the totality of jazz brotherhood––was Louis Armstrong. He had, in a satirical way, first paid homage to the Kennedys on record while participating in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors––a monumental jazz release from 1961. The track Cultural Exchange (about the State Department’s so–called “discovery of jazz”) has Louis uttering the phrase: "If the world goes wacky, we'll get John to send out Jackie!" A generic voice booms: "You mean Jackie Robinson?" to which Armstrong chimes, "No man, I mean the First Lady!"

Satchmo was a silent but dutiful flag–waver, the evidence of which rang out in parts of his repertoire. Following the JFK funeral, Louis reconvened a tour with his All–Stars. December 1 found the sextet performing in Massachusetts, where Jack Kennedy had served so long as a Boston politician. Louis had a set list of traditional closers, but felt obliged on this night––with no oral prelude––to play a different tune, unaccompanied. As his trumpet echoed the strains of God Bless America, the audience was fixed silently still, tied in unity. With only his horn and a single chorus, Louis was exemplified in his short elegant prose, telling his people––all people––that, through sacrifice, we can still hope. In his finish, he simply said to the tearing crowd: "That was for President Kennedy. Goodnight." 
(Jazz and JFK to be continued in Part 2)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.