Saturday, December 16, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 2

© -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 & 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.

Hampton Hawes, keyboardist and composer, was a flourishing favorite on the West Coast jazz scene (and deservedly so) throughout much of the 1950s. But alas and early on, he followed the mentality and drug path that so many of his colleagues surveyed, craving more than the music that should have been sufficient. If you have to ask How High the Moon, to be sure he was already there: the pianist was hooked on heroin before turning 21.
On the very night he was toasting to his 30th birthday in late 1958, Hawes would be arrested. Days later, while awaiting sentence, he cut an album of spirituals. It was called, perhaps not ironically, The Sermon (note that Hamp’s dad was a minister). The narcotics habit that caught up with him would result in a 10–year term in federal prison. He began “hard time” in April, 1959. In June, his sentence was extended by one year for contempt of court. Hawes was sent to a Fort Worth prison hospital the next month, where he lived out the duration. He wasn't set to be freed until 1970, but was eligible for release at the start of '66.

Enter John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Hawes was watching TV from his cell when the new president took oath that morning of Washington chill in 1961. The convict found himself over excited, assuring other inmates that Kennedy's "the right cat." He found the inaugural speech so full of promise that he made a decision right off. In his co–authored Raise Up Off Me (published in 1974), Hamp elaborates in detail about his desperate course. He would write the top man personally, requesting a presidential pardon.

The next day, Hamp shared his plan to a prison official, who couldn't help but be amused. His biggest obstacle, for the time being, was that no attorney would take him on (for well over a year). When the year–end holidays arrived in ‘62, Hawes had reason to rejoice: In the mail was his waiting request––an Application for Executive Clemency. The process was exasperating and tedious: a pile of pages to start off with, which reeked of indistinguishable legalities. To remotely comprehend it all, he helped himself to the prison library.

With all his myriad functions as Commander–in–Chief, it was highly improbable that Kennedy would ever have responded to Hawes' cause, yet that's exactly what he did. In fact, of the 42 prisoners pardoned by JFK, Hamp was second to last. The sparkling interpreter of jazz, with enough ability at rhetoric, had literally engineered his own release, all based on talent and musical status. The pardon was signed August 14, 1963. An added irony is that the touted piano man had been incarcerated in Texas, only 35 minutes away from where the JFK tragedy would unfold three months ahead.

His career resumed, Hawes entered the recording studio once again in early 1964. The album for Contemporary (label of his last nine sessions) was made Feb. 17, Its title track a testimony to a life once embraced, lost and restored: the film song Green Leaves of Summer.


Playing aside, vibes master Terry Gibbs, now 93, is a keen story–teller known for his lucid recall of events past in his eight–decade career. Hence, I predicted that he could easily tell of his whereabouts on the day when the world came to grasp the unfathomable heartbreak of Nov. 22, 1963. "We were at the London House," Terry confirmed, "probably one of the most exclusive restaurant–clubs in Chicago. I had Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, John Dense on drums and Louis McIntosh, a bass player. We were there two weeks. A whole lot of things happened before we opened. Alice [McLeod], who was working with me for a whole year [as pianist and in vibraphone duets with Terry], came to me the week before. She had to leave to join John Coltrane, because they were going to get married. I introduced her to John, so that was a big thing for me.

"The day after I opened [was when] Kennedy got it––and [the management] made us come into work. We went to the job, wondering if they would tell us to go home, but they didn't––they made us play. I thought they were crazy. I played ballads all night...and probably everything in a minor key…I couldn't play anything that was in [up] tempo. In fact, I just couldn't play. We didn't know what to do. I mean, if it was one of those jobs that wasn't that important to me, I never would have showed up. But I never thought I could [get hired to] play that club...because the only musicians who did were people like Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing––it was a piano room. So when Joe Glaser [the booking agent] got me into the room, I was thrilled. That's why I remember all of this.

“We played until we were told we could go home; I think we ended early. I never said a word [no tune announcements, etc.]. The audience was sparse, but they did have a crowd because people still went out to dinner. I'm surprised the audience didn't say: 'We don't want music.' I don't think they really cared. I know one thing: that whenever I played, I didn't remember it afterwards or really thought about what I was playing. Just trying to play one song, forget about the rest, was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Jazz musicians are lucky, because when you have trouble, you can go to the job and think [only] about the music. Things got better [for the duration of the run]; you can only grieve over a shock like that for so long."

Bill Basie had already appeared twice in the films of ardent fan Jerry Lewis, the first being Cinderfella (1960), followed by The Errand Boy (1961). His band appears on camera in the first; in the latter it functions as an audio backdrop for the comic's pantomime. Basie was due to take part in still another Lewis production in '63––Sex and the Single Girl. The cameras were set to roll for another day's shoot on Nov. 22 with the Count's swinging collective in place. Jet magazine reported that when the horrific news spread, Basie was "so shook up" that he rushed off the movie set in tears. The bandleader cancelled his next three shows. Surely, the President was been on his mind, due to an untimely slated date: the Count was to partake in a jam session on a nationwide TV special five days later, as part of a JFK gala on Nov. 27. Instead, the President’s burial had already taken place.

During the 40–minute ride to Dallas that had the President waving to crowds from an unprotected limo––that was from 11:50 AM to 12:30PM when the world changed in a few crackles––Woody Herman was on his way to a New York recording studio to make an album––his third of five for the Phillips label. The session was arranged for 2PM, Eastern Standard Time, one hour ahead of Texas. By start time, everyone involved had already heard the reports. Woody's latest Herd, a half–hour after the unbearable fact, was trying their utmost to make a satisfactory take on A Taste of Honey (a 1960 Broadway pop tune, arranged by lead trumpeter Bill Chase).

It was at that point when Gene Lees (the jazz editor–columnist and sometimes lyricist) arrived in the control booth. "I went up to the session," he said, "numb like the whole nation. Woody did a take...but no one felt like going on––and he called the session.” That take indeed appears on the album, simply titled Woody Herman: 1964. Lees wrote: “Its dark mood of mourning [is] a testament to the way jazz can almost instantaneously reflect public events––and express the emotions they engender." Irony seems to sit among the balance of titles; attempted the next day was Bill Holman's supercharged arrangement of After You've Gone.

On evenings, the Swingin’ Herd was enchanting crowds at the nearby Metropole (a jazz spot partly recalled for its space issues: the entire band was obligated to stand, sardine file, behind the club bar.) Trombonist Phil Wilson, a long–standing jazz educator on staff at the Berklee College of Music, was there the night of Kennedy's end. He told the writer in 2013: "The band did set up, [but] we played only briefly––one or two [numbers] to no audience. There was almost none, if any, and it was decided we close; the whole place was a ghost town. Broadway was surreal at 10 PM––no lights, no people."

Nat Cole, who had sung for President Eisenhower (and would for his grand–successor, LBJ), had become a strong ally for Kennedy after the two met at a 1958 dinner in support of Jack's re–election to the Senate. The President himself was part of an infinite fan base that the singer maintained. (If one account is true, the adulterous president would court at least one of his conquests with the aid of Nat’s music. 19 year–old Mimi Alford, a college sophomore, was a White House staffer when her year-long affair with JFK took place. Exactly fifty years later, in 2012, she divulged in her book how the President would cue up Nat on the resident’s stereo turntable, singling out the quaint ballad Autumn Leaves.) Once JFK placed his bid in for the big office in 1960, he encouraged Nat to volunteer his services in supporting the new candidate. The following phone–in telegram survives. It originates from Wisconsin (charged to Robert Kennedy's hotel room there) and was addressed to Nat Cole at his L.A. home. Writes Jack:

“I certainly appreciate your willingness to help me in the campaign...I would have liked to have had you with me on my visits around the state, but I understand that our schedules preclude us [sic] being here together...I would hope that in one of the primaries that is to would be willing to assist me. I am most grateful to you.

Best Regards, John F. Kennedy.”

Pete Barbutti
, 83, is one of the few ingenious comics to create a complete routine based on the jazz lingua. Nat Cole was so fascinated by his originality that he hired Pete as his opening act for much of the 1963–64 season. The two were inseparable at this period and roomed together on tour. When this writer interviewed the comedian in 2007, he spoke warmly of their kinship. JFK was recalled in two separate accounts. "I was in Nat's room in Washington, DC at the Mayflower Hotel; we were there working the Carter–Barron Theatre. The phone rings and Nat is saying, 'Yeah, sure Jack. Yeah, I can come over after the show.' He's talkin' to Jack Kennedy. Nat asked me, 'Do you want to go over?' I told him no; I wouldn't know what to say or what to do. So he went over and had dinner with Jack and Jackie." The time frame of Barbutti's account can be pinpointed to mid–August, 1963, when Nat visited the White House. He and the President almost assuredly discussed race relations. Three interrelated concerns come to mind: JFK's new legislation bill on civil rights, the crisis in the South and the forthcoming march on Washington, to take place August 28.

Barbutti segued to that specific November day that lay ahead. "We were in Omaha, Nebraska, working a theatre there when I got a call...I was still asleep and Sparky, who was Nat's valet, woke me up. He said, 'Did you see the news? Jack Kennedy was just assassinated.' Walter Cronkite had just announced it. We couldn't believe it. Nat called me and he was crying. [Natalie Cole, thirteen at the time, said it was the only time she saw her father break down.] Nat told us to 'Pack up; we're gettin' out of here.' The [theatre] owner had the audacity to say, 'Come on, Nat––it's not that big a deal. We can still do the show.' Of course, he went right back to L.A. and went home. There were only three [dates] left in the tour and we cancelled them all.” (Jazz & JFK to be continued in Part 3.)

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