Riffing on September 23rd: Nixon & Duke: Trane and Brother Ray; Fos and Cos
60 years ago today, Richard Nixon disavowed charges that he was on the take in his “Checkers” speech, but he acknowledged that his family’s black and white cocker spaniel was a gift, and they weren’t giving it back. To underscore his determination to stay on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower, he invoked the legend of his wife Pat’s heritage when he said “the Irish never quit,” and noted that she was born on St. Patrick’s Day.
Nixon, of course, served two terms with Ike; later, as our 37th President, he did a solid for the nation’s greatest art form by hosting a 70th birthday party for Duke Ellington. Nixon took to the piano after asking the assembled to sing “Happy Birthday” in the key of G, and earlier asked the Maestro why he was giving everyone in the receiving line four kisses?
“One for each cheek, Mr. President,” Ellington replied. “Oh!” replied Nixon. “After the line had passed,” Duke wrote in Music Is My Mistress, “to my amazement he turned to me and I turned to him, and without a word being said we exchanged four kisses. ‘Now I’m a member?’ he asked. Yes, Mr. President, you are a member.”
Tricky Dick was the fourth President to invite Duke to the White House, Harry Truman the first, followed by Ike and LBJ, who hosted seven visits by the D.C. native whose father, James Ellington, had served as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. JFK hadn’t got around to requesting a visit from EKE before November 22, 1963, but Duke says the President appreciated his State Department tours, and Ellington alluded to the Kennedy Summer White House in early ‘60’s concerts when announcing that trumpeter Cat Anderson’s “high C was above Hyannisport.” Recalling his first White House visit, Duke wrote, “President Truman dismissed his bodyguard, closed the door to his private study, and invited me to sit down and talk as one piano player to the other…You might have thought we were a couple of cats in a billiard parlor, so informal was our conversation.”
As it happened, John Coltrane turned 26 on the day in 1952 when Nixon vowed to “drive the crooks and the Communists and their defenders out of Washington;” Frank Foster turned 24; and for Ray Charles Robinson, whose license plate read RC 923, it was birthday number 22.
Here’s Coltrane with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb (four-fifths of The Miles Davis Quintet) playing “On Green Dolphin Street” in 1960.
Here’s Ray Charles with his orchestra deployed as tambourine shakers and percussionists in a 1963 performance of “What’d I Say?”
Click here to see the late tenor saxophonist Frank Foster leading the Count Basie Orchestra; Foster's featured on the opening “After You’ve Gone,” then conducts the band on the Basie classics, “Corner Pocket” and “April in Paris.”
And here's Bill Cosby poking some fun at "Fos" in a conversation with bassist John Lee.