Monday, December 18, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 4

© -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.


On that darkest day of '63, Gunther Schuller (who would turn 39) assembled a New York orchestra for an unusual (if not undesirable) record date. His scores were designed to accompany a renowned sophisticate of the opera, Rise Stevens, starting with a 10AM–1PM session. Considering who the album was written for, its proposed title is all oxymoron: Swingin' the Blues. If that was not challenge enough, the players (which largely constituted jazz men) had to endure as the mezzo–soprano struggled to go "cool" on a batch of standards that were clearly uncharacteristic of her forte. The album was never released. Phil Woods, present in the sax section, takes it from there:

"We broke for lunch and that's when we heard about JFK...There was a Texas flag on the wall of the restaurant we ate in––very ironic, indeed. The session [to be continued from 2–5PM] was cancelled and many of us went to Clark Terry's house, which wasn't far. Oliver [Nelson] was beside himself. He called all of the TV stations which were all showing the flag and told them it was no day to fly the colors. I drove home...took my collection of rifles off the mantle rack––I was a sharpshooter in the high school rifle club––and have never shot a [deer] since. Years later when we did The Kennedy Dream, I understood something of the magnitude of Ollie's grief. "

For Marian McPartland, November 1963 would start off with a musical experience she had not anticipated––all due to a surprise call from Benny Goodman. She accepted the piano spot in the new septet Benny was forming, mainly because it was temporary. After a formal premiere on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, they commenced on what was to be a month–long tour, beginning Nov. 5. By chance, the combo happened to be in the Dallas vicinity when Kennedy was struck down a few weeks later. One musician verified: "The bus went right through that area where he was shot. There were police all around." Goodman’s next one–nighters were cancelled––leaving the players stranded for some days in a small Texas town nearby.

Marian stayed "glued to the motel TV" as she would later describe it. She put her grief to use by penning a letter to Down Beat. In it, she expressed her sympathy while accurately praising Kennedy's strong support of the *arts. The Goodman tour finally resumed, but by this time, few dates were left. Between her dealings with the temperamental clarinet star, together with the brutal taking of the President, Marian found the after effects unbearable. She checked herself in as an outpatient at a clinic to ease her "shaken equilibrium." She also attended a bible class in an attempt to find spiritual solace.

[*Two weeks after JFK’s passing, the first recipients (31) of the Presidential Medal of Freedom were recognized and awarded. The initial three from the field of music were cellist Pablo Casals, pianist Rudolf Serkin and contralto Marian Anderson. The list had been studied and revised by Jack and also Jackie, who was equally (if not more) an ally of the arts.]

As to how the nation's beloved young leader was eliminated, the public remains about equally mixed. Still, no one can say for certain that a refugee called Oswald was complicit in a plot. Anita O'Day gave her own slant in her abetted autobiography from 1981, High Times, Hard Times. The singer tells how she became acquainted with another killer in the making, once–removed from the president. "A date I'll never forget," she stressed, "was the Colony Club in Dallas...I got to know a chubby, nondescript guy who managed [it]...If all the cops hanging around at the Colony hadn't made me nervous about a heroin bust, I probably wouldn't even remember the club or the guy's name––it was Jack Ruby...”

In her memoirs, O’Day doesn’t guess about the lone gunman versus conspiracy theory. “One thing I do know,” she said, “is that Jack Ruby was very tight with members of the Dallas police force." To be more accurate, Ruby ran the Carousel next door to the Colony burlesque club (which, incidentally, he had been barred from in latter 1963). Still, while Anita’s memory was a bit off, she could easily have met or known Ruby.

In August, 1964, a month before anxious eyes could examine the official Warren Report findings, Artie Shaw found himself absorbed in the topic during a TV guest spot. The former bandleader had long struggled to juggle his two loves for a more cerebral existence penning serious prose––now he was making the rounds to announce his second book (forthcoming) of three novellas––I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! (He also had a film distribution company in the works.) When Artie arrived at the studio to appear on Les Crane’s ABC talk show, he was fascinated to find what guests he was paired with. Of the six, the controversial balance were Jack Ruby's former attorney and––would you believe?––mother of the murderous Lee Harvey Oswald.

In the immediate years after his demise, some jazz artists came to memorialize JFK in original music. Clare's Fischer's sense of patriotism arises in numerous recordings he made––with two titles devoted in full to the Kennedy legacy. Clare attempted to translate into music a sense of what the nation was feeling after losing Jack, then Robert in the spring of '68. It is the simulated sound of gun shots from a snare drum that the listener hears at the close of In Memorial: JFK & RFK. The two–minute elegy offers one of the few recorded examples of Clare, a jazz pianist by distinction, on alto sax. The piece was taped two months after Robert's murder and first appeared on One to Get Ready...Four to Go (an LP anthology of 1963–65 material, soon out–of–print; it also includes two quartet tracks made a few weeks before John was slain). Clare captured the same feeling in 1969, manifested again through his favorite idiom, the big band. Confusion in Dallas remained vaulted until 1980, when it made up part of the album Duality.

Brent Fischer, guardian of his father's unfinished work, is director of the continuing Clare Fischer big band. He worked closely with his dad (who died in 2012 at 83) on projects since the age of sixteen, playing bass and percussion. Like Clare, he's also an orchestrator/composer. Brent told the writer: "I know my father was deeply affected by the Kennedy assassinations, because we discussed their repercussions at length. Dad felt that when people are very good at what they do, some idiot usually comes along and ruins it. The Kennedy brothers were his prime example. He admired how they dealt with changing issues in a positive manner from a position of strength." Clare's sentiment in the aftermath, and the ills of society in general, come forth in another of his compositions: Man Is No Damn Good (composed circa 1977). It was recorded by Brent and released it for the first time on the 201 CD Continuum.

Clare wasn't the only jazz writer to interpret the tragedy in a musical sense. When Kennedy's 1955 Pulitzer–prize winning book Profiles in Courage became the basis for an NBC–TV series in 1964 (lasting one season), Nelson Riddle supplied the theme music (aka the JFK March). In early 1968, Rufus Harley––a jazz original and bagpiping wonder––gave us his respective quartet improvisation A Tribute to Courage (JFK). This title track, clocking in at 7¾ minutes and done in a somber minor key, was inspired by the bagpipers at JFK's funeral.

Oliver Nelson would devote a half–hour of material to the slain president in The Kennedy Dream: A Musical Tribute to JFK. The suite (as far as this writer knows) was performed live only once: the 4th anniversary of the Kennedy’s passing in 1967. A number of religious world–famous dignitaries were invited to the concert, which took place at the Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. The album was made that year in two February sessions and released in three months' time on the Impulse label.

It comprises eight originals––seven by Nelson. Phil Woods (alto sax) is the key soloist in an orchestra with strings and percussion. The setting is jazz–symphonic, with the leader taking his inspiration in part (so it sounds) from Elmer Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Tempos are respectfully tranquil, though a few do rise to a more swinging pulse. Rose Kennedy, the strong mother patriarch, was so thrilled by the idea and end product that she wrote Oliver, extolling his creation.

Each piece is blended with extracts of Kennedy's own voice, taken from various key speeches, and the sounds are both poignant and eerie at once. These reflective snippets are brief with the music being dominant. The titles are befitting, from Tolerance and Day in Dallas, to the pretty waltz Jacqueline. In the latter, we hear Jack's casual banter to a crowd in which he reveals the primping etiquette of the First Lady. The closing John Kennedy Memorial Waltz, by George David Weiss, is the only track previously recorded: drummer Dannie Richmond’s quintet performed it on his 1965 debut release 'In' Jazz for the Culture Set on Impulse.

A worthy aside: Some readers will take interest in knowing about the jazz artist who shared a famous Kennedy moniker: violinist Joe Kennedy, Jr. (1923–2004). He recorded periodically, sometimes as a leader, between 1946 and 2001." 

 (Jazz & JFK to be continued and concluded in Part 5.)

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