Planet Square

Planet Square
Reviewer: Captain K
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The Best Gig in Town:
Jazz Artists at the White House, 1969-1974
244 pages
January 31, 2015
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Offers a fresh view of the Nixon presidency, one rarely seen by ordinary Americans: a view of a White House at play with Nixon as genial and gracious host.

Finally -- the performance-by-performance summary of the jazz concerts given at the White House during the Nixon Administration you’ve been waiting for is here. Welcome to “The Best Gig in Town -- Jazz Artists at the White House 1969 -- 1974,” by Edward Allan Faine.

Was this a niche on the jazz library shelf desperate to be filled? Is it meant to be sort of absurd or somehow kitchy? Is it trying to make a point? The overall motivating core or genesis of the book is not revealed but the author is obviously serious about his interest in this topic. It is his second book on the subject after “Ellington at the White House, 1969.”

This 227 page book with notes and bibliography is full of information on a topic esoteric enough to be Borges-ian in its existential weirdness. It is a strange visit into the minute details of a monumentally unhip and musically trivial in impact series of short concerts where the music wasn’t even the main point. But then again…. if you would like to know which Modern Jazz Quartet composition was preferred by Spiro Agnew on October 21, 1969, search no further.

That such a book exists at all is a statement of the author’s ability to dive deep into the available records in pursuit of the what may be the last unexplored frontier of the relentlessly examined Nixon Administration. This book is written for early 1970s mainstream pop/jazz/standards super-completists with a crossover to Nixon White House years completists. This may be a more substantial cohort than I had imagined. This is a real book with a nice trade softcover presentation with pictures and everything. E-book is on the way.

Between January 1969 and August 1975 there were 13 performances of jazz artists at White House functions. This books reviews them all -- including songlists, notable attendees, duration of applause, Nixon’s opinion where available and background sketches of the artists performing. The biographical and contextual setting provide more than just a passing interest and the book is readable.

There is no wider socio-political context analyzed or agenda put forward. Just a record of stuff that happened at an interesting place and time. Some details are compelling -- for instance Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman could be depended upon to make sure the performers were at least neutral on Nixon -- a Haldeman memo is quoted insisting the West Wing control the selection of performers because the Social Secretary's office, “...has no basis for evaluating individuals by the (support/non-support) criterion.” Classic.

The music program at the Nixon White House was not adventurous. Nor would it be expected to be -- that is understood. Charles Mingus or Ornette Coleman were not on the bill. It was more of a Pearl Bailey, Bobby Short kind of scene.

The performers saw it as an honor to be invited to the White House -- and most avoided politics altogether. They were non-controversial with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra, then in the middle of his “comeback” period. Frank is also by far the biggest star on this list and the chapter devoted to his performance was a highlight, including a story about Sinatra nearly losing his opportunity to play the White House. At a 1973 inauguration party. Sinatra called a local society columnist, “scum.” Their encounter went downhill from there. It concluded with Sinatra stuffing two dollar bills in her glass. Hilarious.

The back of the book has detailed annotation and a bibliography of diverse lineage. Source listings include some odd juxtapositions like jazz author Gary Giddins and the Nixon Library Archives. My favorite source entry is: “Memo H.R. Haldeman to Rose Woods….Special Files EXSO3, Box 57, Nixon Library…” It contained my favorite quotation -- a bizarre summary of Nixon’s instructions regarding the “Evenings at the White House” -- what sort of critics to invite and, “We should not include anybody below the top levels of government….we should not erode down to…. the secretary level.” Indeed not. Rose Woods was an exception of course, but I wonder how she felt reading that crack.

Included at the end is a listing of selected recordings of interest to readers. I was hoping to see an entry for, “White House Tapes Oval Office…” but no such luck. Something like Nixon to Haldeman: “We’ve got to get in some black people, with the jazz, Bob. Placate these [expletive deleted] civil rights commies. Get the "Hello Dolly" gal or one of them.”  Faine touches on some of the more controversial aspects of that period including racial ones and Nixon’s “Shakespearean” qualities, but he plays it mostly straight. He’s more interested in the bands.

While I have nothing against Al Hirt, Pearl Bailey or Bobby Short, their middle of the road American Songbook blandness isn’t musically exciting. At the far end of the unhip part of the spectrum was the Ray Coniff Singers -- but strangely it is they who provide the moment of protest. A newly hired backup singer pulls out a banner and declares a confused statement of protest before their first number. She was escorted out and the author notes ominously that she never sang professionally again.

At the other end, however, Modern Jazz Quartet, Billy Taylor and Frank Sinatra added artistic credibility to these lavish events. The author places their White House appearances in the context of their careers  and reviews their music with obvious knowledge. And Faine also makes sure the notable backing musicians including the service bands get their recognition.

The events themselves now seem antiquated -- formal dress and bejeweled society matrons listening to corny and labored presidential attempts at humor. Ultimately they were the squarest events on the planet, despite the efforts on the bandstand. The official White House photos look like yearbook pictures from Twilight Zone High School. They show Nixon at his stiffest, posing with a robotic-appearing Pat Nixon and various heads of state and musicians.

The guests of honor were varied -- the least staid being the Duke and Duchess of Windsor the proto-celebrity scandal couple, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny the benevolent dictator of Ivory Coast who had $30 billion in Swiss bank accounts -- interesting guy. It’s details like this that add up to a worthy read, a focused look at a very specific set of events that turn out to be an illuminating reflection of an extraordinary time and place through an unexpected lens.