Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 5

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

“Stan Levey's foray into the big time also included playing for John F. Kennedy. Stan came into the Kennedy scene early in the young senator's campaign for the presidency. Campaign rallies were simply paying gigs for Stan, but he admired Kennedy and his acquaintance with the thirty-fifth president became a lifelong source of pride that Angela Levey always knew would bring a smile to his face when the subject arose.

"Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh hosted a campaign rally for Jack Kennedy at the Del Coronado Hotel across the bay from San Diego," said Angela. "Nelson Riddle was playing, and Stan was in the band. I was backstage, standing there listening and looking through a crack in the curtains. I heard a voice say, 'I wonder if they're ready for me yet.'

"He looked nervous. He was buttoning and unbuttoning his coat. His blue shirt matched his blue eyes and his bronze skin matched his bronze hair. I said, 'I don't know, they look pretty busy.' He said, 'Hi, I'm Jack. You're Stan's wife, right?'"

Later, after Kennedy was elected president, Stan played with Ella Fitzgerald at the Commander in Chief’s lavish birthday party on May 19, 1962, when fifteen thousand people filled Madison Square Garden for a gala event that featured Ella alongside other celebrities like Jack Benny and Marilyn Monroe,

"No one was allowed to bring cameras in," said Angela. "But Stan had a movie camera with him in the pit, and he filmed Kennedy coming down the steps with his bodyguards. Stan was standing up to get the picture and as Jack got closer I could see him look at Stan with a little smile on his face, like, “Oh, you are so bad!'"
- Frank R. Hayde, Stan Levey Jazz Heavyweight: The Authorized Biography

"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 www.stan-kenton.com.

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.

“In September 1963, Duke Ellington embarked on a U.S.–sponsored Goodwill tour of the Middle East and vicinity, plus India, lasting fourteen weeks. It started in Damascus, Syria and was set to finish out just prior to Christmas. (While Duke was worldly and well-traveled, it was actually his first encounter in these parts of the globe.) A five–man CBS news crew linked up with the Ellington band on Nov. 20, intending to film concert excerpts for the television series 20th Century. But the network's planning was all in vain…

Duke's entourage was in Ankara, Turkey when the tour was cut short on Nov. 22. The cancellation caused some bitterness by all parties involved, due to other State Department cultural exchange tours in progress. Unlike Ellington's, the others were left intact.But this seemed to be in the Duke's favor: only ten days before, he was performing in Baghdad, a mere few hundred yards away from where Iraqi air force jets strafed a government palace in an attempted coup. It seemed the first ominous sign to head home.

The news of JFK reached the inconsolable Duke in his hotel suite in Istanbul. He re-lived the account to appease curious reporters: "We had just returned from a very gala reception given for us by the U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the embassy...It was just before dinner and we were all real hungry. But the news killed our appetite...We just sat around and looked at each other." Trumpeter Herbie Jones was more specific about the moments: "The diplomats and everybody was around. Somebody came in and yelled, 'The president's been shot and I'm thinking, yeah, okay...Everybody's getting shot around here. Then the guy says, 'Our president!' and you hear about a dozen plates fall..."

The Duke lamented, "The president's death was more than a national tragedy. I simply could not go on...Everybody in the band felt the same…We didn't feel like playing…we felt it would not be right...it just wouldn't have been graceful." Of the despicable act, Duke offered his own conclusions to a Foreign Service officer: "It's a hit man. He was fingered...Kennedy was the only president since Lincoln who gave a damn about Negroes." The next night from Ankara, Duke sent a short condolence (in his typically hip parlance) to Lady Jackie. The telegram was addressed to Mrs. Kennedy, the White House, Washington:

'Not as much as you and your family, but we and many who believe in
his rightness today suffer the great loss of your great man. Duke Ellington.'

Another eminent bandleader was overseas as well, amidst a two–week tour that would cover the United Kingdom during the second half of November. This 1963 trip was historically notable, as it would close a unique chapter of the distinctive Stan Kenton sound: a 22–piece orchestra that used as its core, since 1961, a four–man mellophonium section. (This haunting brass oddity was a cross between a trumpet and trombone.) On Nov. 22, the band was set for two evening shows at the Odeon in Birmingham, England.

It was between these concerts that the band's bus driver rushed on stage with a news leaflet hot off the press. Baritone/bass saxophonist Joel Kaye noted that "Stan didn't believe it at first. He had asked [the band's traveling photographer] if this was one of his pranks." Trombonist Bob Curnow expanded: "The band had a discussion with Stan on whether or not to play for the second concert. It was decided by all that we should." Veteran alto man Gabe Baltazar, a crowd favorite for his scintillating improvisations, gives his angle from the bandstand. He felt, "The band played their hearts out. We were wailing and just let our soul and emotions go. At the end, Stan declared a minute of silence."

Mellophonium player Bob Faust, the band’s youngest member at 19, noticed how "even in London, the people were crying uncontrollably in the streets. I could just imagine what it must have been like back home in the States. To ease our grief, Stan organized something special...a surprise Thanksgiving dinner party. Since the tradition isn't celebrated in England, it was a difficult task. Being musicians, we were for the most part a macho group of guys. But Stan said solemnly, 'Before we eat, why don't we go around the table and have everyone share something they're thankful for.'"
The Kenton tour ceased on schedule, Nov. 30, with the band then dissolving. Dee Barton's return home had to be eerie, since he was a born–and–raised Dallas boy. The trombonist–turned–drummer (who went on become a film scoring favorite) said that it was truly "a strange feeling." A private tape of Kenton just after the President’s assassination offers a glimpse into courage––and how entertainers are trained to rise to any situation. Stan, though reeling inside, appears calm and collected at the mic. Within the first 30 seconds of his greeting, he has his audience laughing. Excerpts of the two concerts, taped Nov. 23 at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, were eventually released on LP in 1982, with added/alternate tracks issued on CD in 1998.


Artistry in Terror: A dazed Kenton is surrounded by bus driver Eric Ericson, musicians Gabe Baltazar, Bob Curnow and Jiggs Whigham (obscured), who all react in disbelief to the front–page headlines, fresh off the printing press. Moments before, the band received word about their martyred president. Stan's opening remarks for that night's second Kenton concert were documented by the Birmingham Evening Mail. He lamented: "It is the very nature of the British people and of the American people to keep shop. That is what we plan to do..." In the years ahead, Kenton would describe the time as "the most terrible night of my life." Photo by Vern "Newcomb" McCarthy.

For Bob Kaufman, whose syncopated poetry (Jazz Chick, Round About Midnight, O–Jazz–O) was part of his second published collection (1967), JFK's end was life–changing. He took a vow of silence immediately after the ordeal, lasting twelve years. Jacque Lowe was Kennedy's one official photographer who saw his transition from senator to sitting president, 1958 thru ’62. After his presidential duties, he was even more in demand with a full load for ‘63. One of his assignments on Nov. 22, around 2:30PM, was a typical shoot scheduled at his New York studio.

Lowe was on his way to photograph a jazz quartet, when he sensed something out of place. It was “weird [what] was happening,” he said. “There was no traffic...all the cars had pulled over [and] people had gathered around to listen to the radio. 'What's going on?' I asked. 'The president's been shot.' I ran the rest of the way [and] raced up the stairs to my studio, but when I saw the tears streaming down the faces of the musicians...I knew he was dead." While we may never know the identities of the four jazz players involved, it makes for another intriguing entry herein.


For the Negro of 1960 America, the name Kennedy––especially upon Dr. King's eventual endorsement––embodied hope. Andrew White, now 75, was a starry–eyed alto saxophonist living in Washington, DC. He turned eighteen that year, but had the leadership qualities of a man more vintaged. White was staunchly caught up in Senator Kennedy's ideology of new change and equality. When forming his first combo after entering Howard University in September, he decided to dedicate the group after the running White House candidate––thus the JFK Quintet was born.

Like Andrew, its other four black members were DC–based with homes and work there. The group had a similar Blue Note feel as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers––a palatable (though repetitive) line–up of saxophone and trumpet, plus rhythm. Maynard Ferguson’s public affirmation of the jazz lads in 1962 (“They’re the bitter end!”) helped somewhat to expand their fan base and get their name out. What brought the quintet fast prestige, however, was that their first two LPs were produced by Cannonball Adderley, who had become a protégé to White.

They completed three albums for the Riverside label, taped mostly in New York City. The introductory release, New Frontiers from Washington, was made in July, 1961; the suitably named Young Ideas followed in December. The third studio album from 1963 (with only the drummer being new) has never been issued. With Adderley unavailable for the project, the label was lax in promoting them. Riverside execs failed to give White a proper explanation why. "They told me they were waiting for me to die," he still tells inquirers. That way, "It'll probably sell more." The quintet lasted exactly three years, dissolving in September of ’63, while Kennedy was still active in office. In its latter days, saxophonist Eric Dolphy filled in as leader at times.


To bring things full circle, centered currently in the District of Columbia, for much of their musical activity, is the group JFK Jazz, a recently formed trio. Then there’s the student JFK Jazz Machine out of Iselin, New Jersey––an auditioned 22-piece community jazz ensemble. Their repertoire covers jazz standards, funk, bossa nova and fusion. Over the past few years, they’ve had the fortunate experience of having professional guest singers and musicians sit in.

Because history has proven and retold of JFK's reckless abandon during his little more than 1,000–day reign (we refer to his routine escapes from the White House at night without the Secret Service being any the wiser), it's not unfeasible to imagine how Jack might don a cap and false goatee and duck into the nearby Bohemian Caverns––a regular late–hour haunt of the JFK Quintet––to hear, if just out of curiosity, the swinging namesake combo that he so inspired.” [END]

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