JAZZ at the White House
THE delicately sequined pale beige evening dress hangs unworn, unhonored, and unsung in a garment bag in the closet. It may soon qualify as an antique dress. Actually it became an instant antique its first night out: Duke Ellington's 70th-birthday tribute at the White House. First a wire: ``The President and Mrs. Nixon invite you to entertainment following dinner honoring Duke Ellington, April 29, 1969, at 10:00, the White House. Dress: black tie. Formal invitation follows. The Social Secretary, the White House.'' It followed. (My interview with the Duke had already appeared, so I was not there to cover the event.)
I dressed carefully in my Washington motel room and stepped out into a drizzly, chilly night. An empty cab pulled up near the motel entrance and I got in. The driver turned his head slightly toward me. ``The White House,'' I said, as nonchalantly as possible. He asked which entrance, and of course I didn't know, so I said it was for the Duke Ellington celebration.
He let me out at a side door that led into the coat check area. The attendants outnumbered the guests: I was the only one there. Was I early? Late?
Where I went from there I'm not sure, but I ended up in a room filled with men and women, chatting and laughing, terribly chic. I looked around for someone to small-talk with. I found to my horror that apparently in the 24 hours from the time I had bought my dress and put it on - my trusted fashion adviser had pronounced it perfect for the occasion - evening skirts had gone from short to long. I was the only one in that room in a short dress.
I left to find myself in a wide corridor-like area decorated with portraits of first ladies. From there I went into a small room full of lighted glassed-in displays of exquisite china. The room was mercifully unoccupied, except for occasional stroll-throughs by long-gowned women and their escorts. I avoided eye contact by studied absorption of china. I hadn't the vaguest idea of what I was looking at. I learned later from one account of the affair that I'd been looking at the china of various presidents.
Exhausting that ploy, I pushed on into a somewhat larger room and spotted a comfortable-looking sofa. I sat down with relief. The relief turned into near-joy, the first I'd felt since the long and short of the evening's message. On a sofa across from me sat the storied Harlem stride pianist Willie ``the Lion'' Smith and, I assumed, his wife. I recognized him even without his derby.
I finally got up courage to go over and speak to him. ``Excuse me,'' I said, ``but aren't you Willie ``the Lion'' Smith?'' He looked up surprised, nodded. I introduced myself, explained that I wrote about jazz. He introduced me to his wife, invited me to sit down.
I was not convinced he quite believed my jazz story. After all, men wrote about jazz - so talk revolved around the obvious: good to be here ... did you come down from New York? ... a lot of your fans must be here, too.
Word filtered through that it was time to get into the receiving line. We found doors that led into an anteroom opening into an arched hall, the area where the receiving line had formed. The Smiths spotted friends and with a cordial goodbye, drifted off. My one mooring in this unfamiliar social sea gone, would I just plunge solo into the line? I hesitated. I looked around and who should be standing not 20 feet away but Earl ``Fatha'' Hines. Alone! Another jazz piano giant!
Hesitation vanished. I went over to him, introduced myself. ``You won't remember me, but I once did an interview with you for Down Beat.'' He gave me that famous flash-of-teeth smile and said, ``Oh yes, of course,'' as if it were only yesterday instead of 1943.
Encouraged by his charitable pretense, I went on to establish a bit more credibility. ``I used to listen to your late night radio remotes from the Grand Terrace in Chicago. You were my No. 1 favorite pianist.''
``Well, what do you know,'' he said. ``Are you still writing?''
``Oh, yes,'' I said. ``Reviewed a couple of your albums recently and your appearance at the Hampton Institute Jazz Festival last summer.''
``Is that right!'' The smile spread wider.
``Are you,'' I asked, ``planning to get into the receiving line? Or are you waiting for someone?''
He motioned toward the line with a ``be my guest'' gesture, and we walked down some steps and eased into the line not far from the hand-shaking hosts - Duke Ellington, the President, Mrs. Nixon, and the Duke's sister, Ruth.
The line was moving steadily forward. And suddenly I was next. ``You're here!'' Duke exclaimed and gave me his usual greeting - a kiss on each cheek, continental style.
Apparently surprised by this little display, the President said, ``Well, what's going on here? Who's this?''
``Why, don't you know?'' Duke said. He told him my name and introduced me. The President then shook my hand and waved me on to his wife, who murmured a pleasant greeting, handed me on to Duke's sister. Then, eager to escape before they noticed my hemline, I hurried on to the East Room. By that time I had lost Earl Hines.
I ended up in the middle of a row about halfway back. The people on each side of me were happily talking to their partners, so I sat as scrunched in as possible on the little gilt chair and tried to keep my dress pulled at least partway over my knees.
Things were starting up on stage and I was surprised to see Mr. Nixon at the piano: He was playing ``Happy Birthday to You'' in a kind of prelude salute to the piano player of the evening. He later struck a more serious note in presenting Mr. Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national civilian award.
Then, the music. No Ellington band - just a group of all-star jazzmen such as Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Urbie Green, J.J. Johnson, saluting the Duke.
At concert's end, everyone was invited for supper and dancing elsewhere in the White House. I was sorry to pass that up. Maybe it was cowardice, but how many more Willie ``the Lions'' and ``Fatha'' Hineses could I count on in one evening?
I worked my way through the crowd to the coat check area. It was deserted except for the attendant who gave me my coat.
Outside I followed a walk that curved gently down to gates in the high fence so familiar in pictures and TV shots. I told the guard I needed a taxi. In a few minutes of waiting, I looked back across the broad lawn at the handsome house.
Behind its lighted windows I could picture the scene - laughter, exuberant jazz, dancing feet. Streetlights and lights on the grounds cast a pale glow through the mist on grass, trees, shrubbery. The street was quite free of traffic.
I could hardly wait for morning. I'd be going on a story assignment to my favorite spot in Richmond: Bethlehem Center, the Methodist-related community center in the Fulton area of the city. Could it have been 10 years since my first visit? Now, segregation shackles loosened, things would be different. In the cab, I smiled and wrapped my coat closer around my knees.