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Various Artists: 1969 All-Star White House Tribute to Duke Ellington

In 1969, President Richard Nixon threw a 70th birthday party for Duke Ellington at the White House, where he awarded the maestro the Medal of Freedom. The Voice of America’s Willis Conover organized the band and performers for the occasion, which included Bill Berry, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Urbie Green, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall, Billy Taylor, Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck, Earl Hines, Milt Hinton, Louie Bellson, Joe Williams and Mary Mayo. Ellington himself performed an original called “Pat,” in honor of the President’s wife.

Tapes of the event have now been made into an album, 28 tunes in all, and all from the Ellington or Ellington and Billy Strayhorn portfolio. Most of the performances are short, and organized jamming is the order of the day, although Mulligan’s fine arranging hand is evident on “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Ring Dem Bells” and elsewhere. Although there’s nothing earth shattering here, everyone plays or sings up to his customary professional standard. And the performances do remind us what a unique sound each of these musicians had. (I wonder if we could assemble a comparably identifiable group today.)

Highlights include the Terry-Berry duet on “Just Squeeze Me”; Desmond’s sweet tone and interesting note choices on “In a Mellotone” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”; Mulligan’s lovely playing on “Warm Valley”; the Hinton and Bellson duet on “Caravan”; Williams’ grand voice on “Come Sunday” and “Heritage”; and Green’s superb tone on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” The album is all music. No speeches or announcements. As a record of one of the most significant government events to honor jazz and a jazz musician in this country, this album is definitely worth owning.

Originally Published