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George Wein: A Great Day in Washington

Legendary concert promoter George Wein recalls when he brought the giants of jazz to President Jimmy Carter's White House in 1978

Jimmy Carter comforts a weeping Charles Mingus (photo: Karl Esch)
Jimmy Carter comforts a weeping Charles Mingus (photo: Karl Esch)
Jimmy Carter performs "Salt Peanuts" with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach
Charles and Sue Graham Mingus watch Herbie Hancock perform
Zoot Sims slips a little hooch into Roy Eldridge's cup as Doc Cheatham looks on
Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown and Sims go over some charts
Jimmy Carter and Cecil Taylor
Jimmy Carter and George Wein

Legendary concert promoter George Wein recalls when he brought the giants of jazz to President Jimmy Carter’s White House in 1978.

In the fall of 1977, Joyce and I retreated again to the home we had acquired in Vence, France. After the manic energy of another New York festival, this was just what we needed. Yet a producer’s mind is rarely respectful of vacations. One afternoon in Vence, I hit the tennis courts with a man named Les Lieber, who rented a house in the next valley. Les was a public relations man by trade, and a saxophonist by hobby; he ran a weekly jam session called “Jazz at Noon” for other musically inclined businessmen and professionals. I didn’t know him well, but we were friendly. That day, we got to talking about the festival. I mentioned that it would soon be 25 years since the first American jazz festival in Newport. “That’s a big anniversary,” Les pointed out. “You should be honored in some way. Why not an event at the White House?”

That, I thought, was not a bad idea.

I had been to the White House once before in 1969, during the first year of the Nixon administration. The occasion was a celebration of Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday. Richard Nixon presided over the event, and awarded Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. DownBeat would later attest that this was “the most popular thing he ever did in a public career spanning 30 years.”

That may not have been an exaggeration; the Ellington party was a classic night. Despite my lifelong liberalism, I found myself standing in line to shake President Nixon’s outstretched hand. Say what you will about his politics: Richard Nixon knew how to throw a party. The wine, whiskey and food were plentiful. The musicians in attendance took part in a joyously informal jam session. Televised footage of the event includes a shot of me playing the piano next to Willie “The Lion” Smith. And although Nixon excused himself from the celebration shortly after dinner, he left the rest of us there to enjoy ourselves. We stayed until the early-morning hours.

Nine years after that evening, much had changed. Nixon had resigned, Ford had taken his place and Jimmy Carter had been elected by a narrow margin. In all that time, there had been no other presidential jazz galas. During the first year of his term, President Carter had devoted evenings at the White House to rock and country music. Coming from Georgia, he had direct contact with the promoters in these fields of music. I felt that if he was going to pay tribute to the Allman Brothers and various Nashville country artists, he should do something comparable for jazz. The 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, I realized, just might be the right hook.

But I didn’t have the slightest idea how to set the necessary wheels in motion. Instinctively, I felt that it would be inappropriate to arrange the affair through a PR office. Although my company no longer ran a festival in Newport, we still called our main event the Newport Jazz Festival. The Rhode Island politicos who had been in office in the 1960s were still in place, and they had all been my guests, at one time or another, during earlier festivals. So I drafted a letter outlining my idea, and asking for help. I sent out three copies of this letter—to U.S. Senators Claiborne Pell and John Chafee, and to U.S. Representative Fernand St. Germain. I received responses from each of them, but St. Germain sent a letter that read: “You have an appointment with the social secretary of the White House.”

In spring 1978, Joyce and I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Gretchen Poston, Carter’s social secretary. We had our arguments ready; we were determined to convince Ms. Poston of this White House Jazz Festival idea. We discovered that our preparations had been unnecessary; Ms. Poston had already approved the festival, and was ready to begin making plans. “We’ll set up a stage on the lawn,” she said, “and do it during the first week of June.”

Emboldened, I raised a point: “Wait a minute, Ms. Poston. Could we move the date to mid-June, shortly before our festival in New York? Many more artists will be available at that time.” She checked her calendar and told us that would be fine. Then the three of us began discussing the festival together, like old friends. We talked about the program. We sketched out basic specs for the stage. Joyce came up with the idea of bringing people from New Orleans to prepare the food. The conversation continued in this fashion, and in one day, the concept for a White House jazz festival had progressed from pipe dream to scheduled event. As Joyce and I left the grounds and walked together down Pennsylvania Ave., we marveled at the thought of the president of the United States honoring the Newport Jazz Festival on the White House lawn.

Within a week, we had sent Ms. Poston a letter outlining a hypothetical plan for the concert. This included what I called “a continually revolving program with musicians gradually changing from number to number in a very subtle manner.” This would be a carefully coordinated afternoon.

We kept in close touch with Ms. Poston, taking several more trips to Washington to map out every aspect of the afternoon. This was not going to be an indoor party, like the Ellington birthday tribute of 1969. It was to be a full-fledged outdoor concert, with almost all of the technical demands of a festival performance. There would be no tent; Ms. Poston was firm on this point. In case of rain, there was a backup plan that involved moving the function indoors and trimming the guest list.

The weekend of the White House jazz festival turned out to be a rather important time for the president. That Saturday, June 17, he signed a treaty promising the return of the Panama Canal to Panama in the year 2000. He returned to Washington early Sunday morning, and immediately went to sleep.

That afternoon, I gathered the musicians on the South Lawn to run down the program. It was a remarkable assembly. Benny Carter next to Ron Carter. Clark Terry alongside Chick Corea. Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Illinois Jacquet—all in one place. Some of the artists were going to play together in groups; others would play solo. My biggest concern was time. I had been instructed to restrict the affair to two hours. In order to meet this demand, I had to impose time limits. After some quick calculations, I had it figured out. Solo artists would get five minutes apiece. Ensembles would get eight minutes. Asking Cecil Taylor to play for only five minutes was not easy. But he, and everyone else, cooperated without complaint, although Eubie Blake, who would have been happy to play all night, did grumble good-naturedly.

At three o’clock, to our surprise, we were joined by a shirt-sleeved Jimmy Carter, with a White House photographer in tow. Not only did he stop to pose with every musician, he had words for each of them. Jimmy Carter had listened to New Orleans jazz radio broadcasts during his childhood, and had visited Greenwich Village as a young naval officer in the 1940s. “I saw you in a club in New York more than 20 years ago,” he said to one musician. “You came to Atlanta once, and I saw you there,” he said to another. To players he had never seen before, he said, “I haven’t heard you yet, but I’m really looking forward to hearing you today.” He didn’t jive anybody. Within 10 days of the event’s conclusion, every musician had received his or her autographed photo with the president.

A buffet—including jambalaya and pecan pie—was served outdoors, with rousing accompanying music by New Orleans’ Young Tuxedo Brass Band. It was a bright, muggy, sunny day, with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees. But the 400 guests in attendance remained in high spirits.

President Carter ushered in the musical portion of the day with a heartfelt speech about the role of jazz in his own life and in America’s cultural history. He characterized jazz itself as “vivid, alive, aggressive, innovative on the one hand; and the severest form of self-discipline on the other. Never compromising quality as the human spirit bursts forward in an expression of song.”

After President Carter’s speech, I took the stage for a brief introduction, thanking the president for making the event possible. “I thank you,” I said, “the musicians thank you, and to get personal for just one second: Of all the people who thanks you the most, it’s my father Dr. Wein—who has the best Father’s Day present he ever had, in his 85th year.” By coincidence, June 18 was Father’s Day. As I made this pronouncement, I looked over at Doc sitting next to my mother on a folding chair. Yes, he kvelled.

Doc’s age was nothing compared to the giant who opened the program. Eubie Blake was 95 years old and still a commanding presence onstage. He obediently (if grudgingly) played only two songs. They were “Boogie Woogie Beguine” and the more familiar “Memories of You.”

The first of our ensembles—a septet featuring Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Illinois Jacquet and Benny Carter—played “In a Mellow Tone” and “Lady Be Good.” Our second assembled group took a more modern approach. Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter did a modal blues: Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.”

After this group, I stepped on stage to make a short announcement. Thanks to taped broadcast recordings of the event, my spontaneous address has been preserved. “There’s one more thing I want to do here. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to ask you to acknowledge a man in the audience. He’s one of the greatest musicians of our generation. He’s a man whose courage and strength is only exceeded by his talent and creativity. He’s sitting over here—ladies and gentlemen, I want you to stand up for this one. Because I want you to give as great a round of applause as he’s ever had in his life—for Charlie Mingus, ladies and gentlemen!”

President Carter walked over to the front row, where Mingus was sitting in a wheelchair, and embraced him. Charles Mingus had recently had a stroke. He also had advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig’s disease—and his condition had been getting progressively worse. At this point, he was almost totally paralyzed. I had taken special care to see that he had everything he needed. Still, it was wholly incongruous to see Mingus—a man who seemed to have been in perpetual, furious motion all his life—so immobilized. As President Carter leaned over and spoke to him, Mingus broke down and started to cry. Tears streamed down his face. The audience, on their feet, applauded him: his courage, his brilliance. For me, it was a spiritual moment. My voice quavering, I spoke. “C’mon Mingus, stand up, will you? God bless you, Charlie Mingus.” It was as if I was praying aloud. At that moment, perhaps, I believed that these people who stood and cheered, might have the power to restore a man’s strength; to bring him out of that chair. For many of us, it was the last time we would see him.

I never considered this moment controversial until many years later, when I listened to a National Public Radio Jazz Profiles tape. The broadcast was an anniversary celebration of Charles Mingus’ music, and an examination of his life. Near the end of the program, announcer Nancy Wilson mentions the White House jazz festival of 1978, and the fact that Mingus was a guest. “Ironically,” she adds, “the man who emceed, Mingus despised. Jazz producer George Wein.”

I literally couldn’t believe my ears. A man Mingus despised? And as I kept listening, the NPR broadcast played part of my speech. “C’mon Mingus,” I heard myself saying, “stand up, will you?” Then Nancy Wilson’s voice again: “But standing wasn’t possible. By then wheelchair-bound, Mingus—Charles Mingus, as he insisted on being called—could not.”

I was shocked. Obviously, whoever prepared the script had looked no further than 1960, the year of Mingus’ infamous rebel yell. But in the years since, we had worked together many times. We had a good relationship.

Meanwhile, Cecil Taylor’s five-minute solo was a measured dose of creative mayhem; a fleeting glimpse of some kind of genius. After the last note faded, Jimmy Carter sprang up from the grass and rushed over to Cecil; Secret Service men scrambled to keep pace. The president took the pianist’s two hands in his own, looking at them with wonderment and awe. “I’ve never seen anyone play the piano that way,” he marveled.

The final scheduled set of the White House festival—featuring Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, George Benson and Louie Bellson—was energetic and swinging. They did “How High the Moon,” “Georgia (on My Mind)” and Hamp’s theme song, “Flying Home,” which he rechristened the “Jimmy Carter Jam.” Illinois Jacquet came on to reprise his famous tenor solo.

In the midst of this gaiety, President Carter approached me. “When is this concert scheduled to end?” Mindful of Gretchen Poston’s time limit, I explained that we were prepared to cut it off at precisely 8 p.m. That time was almost nigh. “Sir, I was told to end the concert in exactly two hours. Unless those orders are countermanded, that’s precisely when the show will end.”

“Consider the orders countermanded,” the president said, smiling. Soon afterward, he took the stage to signal the end of the official program. “I don’t believe the White House has ever seen anything like this,” he enthused. “This music is as much a part of the greatness of this nation as the White House or the Capitol down the way. Stan Getz and Lionel Hampton have been heroes of mine for a long time. Anybody who wants to is free to go, but I’m going to stay and listen to some more music.”

The show kept going, on its own momentum. Pearl Bailey, who was in attendance not as a performer but as Louie Bellson’s wife, jumped onstage to join Hamp. The vibraharpist, mildly threatened, tried to shoo her off. (He later claimed that without his glasses, he didn’t recognize Pearl. He thought she was white.) Miss Bailey stayed on to sing a few tunes. Later Gerry Mulligan, another invitee not scheduled to perform, seized one of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band’s clarinets and got in some licks of his own. Dizzy and Max played a duet, and later Dizzy—in a magisterial air—summoned the president onstage. It was then that Jimmy Carter became the first president to take part in a bebop tune—singing “Salt peanuts, salt peanuts!” Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).